Forecasting NHL leaders in goals, assists, points for 2020-21 season

NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly tells Tim & Sid the all-Canadian North Division will only be around for this season.

The puck drops on the 2020-21 NHL season this week and this season is going to look a little different.

Forecasting player performance in a shortened season consisting of only intra-divisional play presents some unique challenges. It’s impossible to know for sure if we will see more injuries with a condensed schedule or how the unique travel may impact player and team performance. However, using a statistical model that evaluates historical scoring rates and underlying stats with a proven correlation to point production, we are able to shine a light on who we believe will be the top scoring players in the NHL.

So, let’s take a look at who we expect to lead the NHL this season in goals, assists and points.

GOALS

Our model has Alex Ovechkin winning the Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy as the NHL’s top goal scorer with 38 goals (assuming Ovechkin plays all 56 games). We expect Ovechkin to average 0.68 goals per-game. This would be down slightly from the 0.71 goals per-game he averaged last season (48 goals in 68 games) however, it would still be his second-highest goals per-game in the past 10 seasons.

Yes, Ovechkin is entering his age 35 season, but he hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down and we don’t think that will change this season. Ovechkin ranked fourth in shots on goal from the high-danger slot area last season and first in one-timer shot attempts, which have a higher average shooting percentage than any other shot type. As long as Ovi continues to fire a ton of shots, high-danger shots and one-timers, he will continue to score at a high rate.

Auston Matthews comes in second in our projected goals model with 36. It’s entirely possible Matthews wins his first goal scoring title this season as he continues to evolve as a goal scorer. Matthews was tied for the NHL lead in shots on goal from the slot last season and added a new tool to his already impressive tool box -- a one-timer from his off-wing on the power play. Matthews attempted more one-timers last season than he had in his entire career previously. Dangerous in all situations, Matthews should be right in the thick of the goal scoring race this season as he starts on a line with established playmaker Mitch Marner and future Hall-of-Famer Joe Thornton.

Kyle Connor ranks fourth on our projected goals list with 33. Connor was tied with Matthews for the league lead in shots on goal from the slot (174) last season. Our expected goals model, which calculates the likelihood of a goal being scored based on shot quality and quantity, had Connor scoring 42 goals last season -- more than anyone in the NHL. Connor finished with 38 goals. Based on the quality scoring chances Connor generates, we believe he will be a top-five goal scorer in the NHL this season.

(Honourable Canadian team mentions: Patrik Laine (28 goals, 11th), Connor McDavid (27 goals, 13th), Elias Pettersson (25 goals, 15th), Mark Scheifele (25 goals, 16th).

ASSISTS

Averaging a point per-game in the NHL is no easy feat. McDavid nearly averaged an assist per-game last season (63 in 64 games). We believe McDavid will average just over an assist per-game this season (57 in 56 games). McDavid ranked top-five last season in pass completions in the offensive zone and pass completions into the high-danger slot area, a statistic that has a strong correlation to generating assists.

Ranking second on our list, Evgeni Malkin. That might come as a surprise to some, but Malkin is still one of the top offensive players in the NHL. Health is the big question mark with Malkin. If he can stay healthy, we project Malkin to average an assist per-game, finishing just behind McDavid. Limited to just 55 games last season, Malkin finished sixth in points per-game (1.35). The Penguins' second line of Malkin, Bryan Rust and Jason Zucker is one of the top second lines in the NHL. Again, health is the big question, but if Malkin can play 50-plus games, he should be at or near the top of the league in assists.

Marner has never finished top-three in assists, but we think that changes this season. Our projection model has Marner finishing with an average of 0.92 assists per-game (52 in 56 games), good for third in the NHL. Marner completed 180 passes into the slot last season, eighth overall, and completed nearly 52 per cent of his attempts -- only Malkin completed these passes at a higher rate among players with more slot pass completions than Marner. With the best 5-on-5 goal scorer in the league, Auston Matthews, on the receiving end of many of these passes, Marner is a good bet to be among the league leaders in assists.

(Honourable Canadian team mentions: Morgan Rielly (43 assists, 11th), J.T. Miller (39 assists, 16th), Quinn Hughes (38 assists, 18th).

POINTS

The race for the Art Ross Trophy should be a close one as our projection model has McDavid edging out teammate Leon Draisaiti. We have McDavid averaging 1.50 points per-game (84 points in 56 games) which is actually down slightly from the 1.52 points per-game he averaged last season. Draisaitl is a close second with a projected 1.48 points per-game (83 in 56 games). The main reason we have last season's scoring champion finishing second this season is that, based on the quantity and quality of Draisaitl’s shots and his ability to finish, we project a slight drop in his goal totals from last season. Draisaitl averaged 0.61 goals per-game last season -- we have him at 0.56 this season.

Speaking of duos, we also have Marner and Matthews finishing top-10 in scoring this season with 67 and 64 points, respectively. The 1.20 points per-game we project for Marner is up from the 1.14 he averaged last season, while the 1.14 we project from Matthews is on par with his average from last season.

(Honourable Canadian team mentions: Scheifele (63 points, 14th), Connor (61 points, 18th).

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