With less than three weeks left in the season, most of the attention is focused on the playoff races. And rightly so, as teams battle it out down to the wire to see who’ll earn a spot and how the matchups will sort out.
But there are other races worth watching, including for some of the individual honours. The Art Ross battle is shaping up as a great one, with season-long leader Nikita Kucherov trying to fend off late surges from Connor McDavid, Nathan MacKinnon and Evgeni Malkin among others. Meanwhile, Kucherov’s teammate Andrei Vasilevskiy is trying to hold off Pekka Rinne and Connor Hellebuyck for the wins title.
But with all due respect to those races, the best of the bunch is for the Rocket Richard Trophy. The goal-scoring title is shaping up as a potential head-to-head fight to the finish between Alex Ovechkin and Patrik Laine, a classic contest between the old guard and the next generation. Laine is the teenaged whiz kid hungry to claim the title in just his second season, while Ovechkin represents the grizzled veteran who isn’t ready to give it up. Mix in Malkin, Eric Staal, the stunning underdog story of William Karlsson and a few others, and this one could come down to the wire. If so, it may be remembered as one of the greatest Rocket Richard races we’ve ever seen.
So today, let’s put together that list, if only to give Laine and Ovechkin something to aim for. The Rocket Richard Trophy has been around since the 1998–99 season, giving us 18 races to work with. Some of those were duds; even in the dead-puck era, the award has been won by a margin of 10 goals or more a half-dozen times. We’ll narrow it down to a top 10, counting our way down to the best race we’ve seen… at least until this year’s.
No. 10: 2000–01
The race: One year after running away with the 2000 title by 14 goals, Pavel Bure had his sights set on a second straight win. It seemed like he’d get it by a similar margin, but a late-season slump saw him finish with just one goal in his final six. That opened the door for two veteran stars who finished hot: Jaromir Jagr, who scored nine in his last six games, and Joe Sakic, who had eight in his last four.
The winner: Bure had built such a big lead that the strong finishes only managed to make the gap respectable. Bure took home the crown with 59 goals, easily topping Sakic (54) and Jagr (52).
The legacy: As races go, it wasn’t all that dramatic. But the fact that it featured three first-ballot Hall-of-Famers earns it a spot in our top 10, narrowly beating out Corey Perry‘s win in the similarly lopsided 2011 race.
No. 9: 1998–99
The race: The Rocket Richard didn’t even exist when the season began; it was only unveiled that January. Still, it looked like Teemu Selanne would capture the inaugural trophy relatively easily when he hit the 45-goal mark with eight games to play. But he went cold down the stretch, opening the door for a field that included Jagr, Alexei Yashin, Tony Amonte and John Leclair to at least make things interesting.
The winner: Jagr and Amonte made a late push, with each scoring four times in their final three games to hit the 44-goal mark. But Selanne coasted home to the crown, finishing the year with 47.
The legacy: The race was just OK, and is probably best remembered just for being the first for the new trophy. Still, given the increased profile that came with attaching Richard’s name to the goal-scoring race, Selanne felt like a worthy winner. An odd fact: The 47 goals made this only the fifth-highest goal-scoring season of his career, but it was the only time he ended up alone in top spot on the leaderboard.
No. 8: 2015–16
The race: It came down to a two-horse race, with Alex Ovechkin gunning for his fourth straight crown while Patrick Kane looked for his first.
The winner: Kane finished the season with a two-goal performance, but Ovechkin topped him with a hat trick. That gave him the title by a four-goal cushion, and even that makes it sound closer than it really was — Kane needed seven goals in his last five to even get that close, and nobody else came within nine of Ovechkin.
The legacy: In terms of star power, this race was right up there; Kane took home the Hart Trophy that season, and Ovechkin had already won it three times. But there wasn’t much suspense, beyond wondering whether Ovechkin would get to 50. He did, with 10 minutes to spare.
No. 7: 2012–13
The race: Thanks to a lockout-shortened season, only three players finished with more than 26 goals. But they were three big names, as we ended up with a battle between former first-overall picks in Ovechkin, Steven Stamkos and John Tavares.
The winner: This one stayed in play until there was a week to go. But Ovechkin’s two-goal game against the Canadiens on April 20 made him the first to hit the 30-goal mark, and would turn out to be all he needed. All three players had a pair of goals the rest of the way, allowing Ovechkin to take home his first Rocket Richard in four years.
The legacy: Remember back in 2011 and 2012 when the Capitals decided they needed to play a defensive style and we all thought Ovechkin’s days as an elite scorer were done? That was over 250 goals ago.
No. 6: 2016–17
The race: The field featured an eclectic mix, including a rookie (Auston Matthews), a blossoming superstar (Nikita Kucherov), and a one-time pest turned sniper (Brad Marchand). But the name on top was familiar, as Sidney Crosby headed into the home stretch with a comfortable lead.
The winner: Crosby didn’t exactly blow the field away, finishing with just two goals in his last seven. But none of the other contenders could mount much of a push, and Crosby’s 44 goals were enough to take the trophy by four.
The legacy: Man, this one still resonates so strongly that it feels like it was only a year ago. (Checks notes.) Oh, right. Still, it was neat to see the best player of his generation earn his first and so far only solo Rocket Richard as a veteran on the verge of 30.
No. 5: 2006–07
The race: This one was basically a two-way race between Vincent Lecavalier and Dany Heatley, with Selanne and Ovechkin lurking in the rearview mirror. Selanne closed strong with three goals in his last two to get to 48 on the year, but it wouldn’t be enough.
The winner: Heatley scored eight times in his last eight games to hit the 50-goal mark. But Lecavalier was able to barely hold him off, finishing with 52 to capture his only Rocket Richard.
The legacy: With both players in their prime at 26 years old, it felt like Lecavalier and Heatley would be in the Rocket Richard mix for years to come. In reality, both were about to fall off; each had only one 40-goal season left, and neither would ever finish better than eighth in the goal-scoring race again.
No. 4: 2003–04
The race: Three wingers battled it out to the wire, with Jarome Iginla, Ilya Kovalchuk and Rick Nash all making a push. This one had a bit of the same vibe as this year’s Ovechkin/Laine race. Kovalchuk and Nash had gone first overall in 2001 and 2002, respectively, and represented the new crop of scoring stars. Iginla wasn’t a greybeard by any measure, but at 26 he’d already won the award once.
Iginla and Nash went into April tied at 40 goals, with Kovalchuk one back. The Thrashers star scored in each of his last two games to finish with 41, a total Nash reached in his final game. That left it to Iginla, who was the only one of the three to suit up on the last day of the season schedule. He got this 41st midway through the second period, but was held off the board the rest of the way.
The winner: A three-way tie, with Iginla, Nash and Kovalchuk all finishing with 41 to split the award. It’s the only three-way of the Rocket Richard Trophy era, and only the second for any goal-scoring race in league history. (1979–80 was the other.)
On the one hand, that’s about as dramatic a finish as you can get. On the other, it’s not really the most satisfying result.
The legacy: All three players built their legacies over the ensuing decade or so, so in theory this one holds up reasonably well. But at only 41 goals, this remains the lowest-scoring race for a non-lockout season since the early ’60s. Even at the time, that had some observers wondering if the race was even worth rooting for.
No. 3: 2002-03
The race: The 2003 Rocket race signaled a wholesale changing of the guard; it was the first time since 1992 that one of Iginla, Jagr, Selanne or Pavel Bure hadn’t finished in the top two, and this time none of those guys even made the top 10.
Instead, it came down to a late race to 50 featuring Marian Hossa, Milan Hejduk and two Canucks teammates in Todd Bertuzzi and Markus Naslund. By the end of the night’s action on March 25, Bertuzzi led the way with 46 goals, ahead of Naslund at 45 and Hejduk and Hossa both at 43.
The winner: Bertuzzi was held off the board the rest of the way, going goalless in five to open the door for the others. Hossa also finished slow, scoring just twice. Naslund had three to move to 48 goals on the year. But it was Hejduk who caught fire in the final two weeks, racking up seven goals in his last five games to finish with 50 on the nose and take the crown.
The legacy: This was one of the better races, with Hejduk and Naslund separated by just a goal heading into the season’s final day. Somewhat weirdly, this year now looks like an outlier for all four players involved — not one of them ever finished as high as the top four in any other season.
No. 2: 2005–06
The race: After the low-scoring 2004 race was followed by losing a season to the lockout, it was nice to see players hit the 50-goal mark again. Five of them did, including a rookie Ovechkin and a breakthrough first season in Ottawa from Heatley. But with five games left, it seemed like it was coming down to a race between the two guys who had already passed the 50 mark: Jagr with 53, and Kovalchuk sitting at 51.
The winner: An upset special for the ages, as San Jose’s Jonathan Cheechoo scored seven times in his last five games to finish with 56 and take the title.
The legacy: That depends on how you feel about Cheechoo. Some see the ultimate underdog beating out an all-time legend with a frantic final push. Others see a forgettable one-hit wonder, the NHL’s answer to Brady Anderson. Maybe it’s both.
Either way, this was Cheechoo’s only top-10 finish; he’d be traded for Heately within three years, and out of the NHL entirely within four. For his part, despite sitting third on the league’s all-time goal scoring list, Jagr never actually led the league in a single season. This was one of his four second-place finishes.
No. 1: 2009–10
The race: You couldn’t ask for three bigger names, As Crosby, Ovechkin and Stamkos battled down to the wire. And it really did come right down to the end – heading into April, Crosby was sitting at 47 on the year, just one up on Stamkos and Ovechkin, both at 46.
That lead had vanished by the time there was one game left to play, with both Stamkos and Ovechkin hitting the 50 mark while Crosby lingered at 49. That set up a classic three-way showdown on the season’s final day.
The winner: Ovechkin fired a team-leading five shots against the Bruins, but Tim Thomas turned him away. Meanwhile in Long Island, Crosby hit the 50-goal mark in the first period to create a three-way tie. He broke that logjam in the second period by potting his 51st on a partial breakaway, giving him sole possession of the lead.
But the drama wasn’t done yet. With just seconds left in a Lightning win over the Panthers, Stamkos raced down a loose puck to score his 51st into an empty net to tie the race.
Crosby was informed of the Stamkos goal by a teammate with minutes left in the Penguins game, and pressed hard to get his 52nd. He had plenty of chances, but couldn’t find the net, and he and Stamkos ended up sharing the trophy, with Ovechkin one goal behind.
The legacy: You can dock this one a point or two for ending in a tie instead of with a close win — oddly enough, the Rocket Richard race has never been determined by a single goal. But other than that, this was pretty close to being the perfect race. You had the league’s two biggest stars facing down the kid who was coming for their crown, and it all literally came down to the final seconds on the final day.
All in all, that sets the bar pretty high. But we’ll see whether Ovechkin, Laine and friends can top it in the weeks to come.