Upon his return to game action last week, there were many questions about Sidney Crosby- would he be the same player? Would he be willing to continue to go into the high traffic areas and pay the price of taking more physical abuse? Those questions have been easily answered as Crosby returned without missing a beat, putting up nine points in four games and also getting into post-whistle scrums with the likes of David Backes and Nick Foligno. Crosby is very much the same player he was 11 months ago, when he put up 66 points in 41 games before the head injury.
But can he be 1993 Mario Lemieux and chase down a scoring title? The mere question seems offensive to the talented players who are near the top of the scoresheet and got a quarter-season head start on Sid. This isn't to take away what they've done or will do, and a realization that Sidney Crosby probably won't win the Art Ross Trophy for 2011-12.
Or can he chase down his Pat LaFontaine, just as Mario did almost 20 years ago? The odds are stacked against Sid and the smart money is definitely "no, he can't". We all know Crosby can't keep up his 2+ point/game rate, but can he score enough to make it to the top of the league? There's no one running away with the crown right now, so let's take a look at the biggest threats Crosby will be running down for the next four months (even if it's not necessarily a stated goal of his).
Statline: 24 games played, 31 points (16 goals, 15 assists) 1.29 points/game
Synopsis: The early season scoring leader, Kessel started red hot and has been looking back at the rest of the league almost all season.
Why he'll beat Crosby: The head start he got is a lot of distance to make up in just 60 games. Plus Kessel's got the skill (and chemistry with Joffrey Lupul and Tim Connolly) to continue to rack up the points just as he's been doing. Kessel's also capable of doing damage on the power play, an easy way to pad the scoring stats.
Why he won't: His 19.8% shooting percentage would be a career high and has already regressed a little from his ridiculously hot start. Kessel's also not the greatest pure playmaker, can he continue to rack up the big assists numbers that a scoring champion usually needs? Also Kessel only has two points (both assists) in the last three games, has he already started to cool?
The rest of the chase after the jump...
Statline: 23 gp, 29p (13g + 16a) 1.26 ppg
Synopsis: Giroux's continued to improve and has found some instant chemistry with Jaromir Jagr
Why he'll beat Crosby: Giroux's got a ton of skill and is the focal point of Philly's offense, giving him the chance to pile up points in a hurry. He's one of the league's most improved young players and hasn't found his ceiling yet, a scary thought as he continues to produce and roll along.
Why he won't: If Jagr slows down (and his notoriously wonky groin is already acting up) that could hinder Giroux. Giroux also plays 2:44 per game on the short-handed unit, which while it shows he's a great 2-way player and very valuable to the team, it's time spent zapping energy for future shifts and also an injury risk waiting to happen.
Statline: 23 gp, 29 points (6g+23a) 1.14 ppg
Synopsis: Last year's scoring champion is off to somewhat of a quiet start with the attention he's gotten (despite that fat 1.00 assist/game ratio), but he's definitely got to be a contender.
Why he'll beat Crosby: He won it last year and the preternatural connection he has with twin brother Henrik almost makes it unfair at times in terms of the chemistry the two of them have on the ice. Sedin's a terrific playmaker and the Art Ross usually goes to the guy who can rack up the most assists.
Why he won't: Last season he scored at a better PPG rate and also popped in 41 goals. This year Daniel's on pace for just 21 goals. That's a lot for him to catch-up on, compared to his excellent season last year. If he's not on the top of his game, and Crosby is, then advantage Sid.
Statline: 22gp, 25p (7g+18a) 1.14 ppg
Synopsis: We all know it's been a struggle for Washington this year, but one of the few guys who's played very well and shown up every night has been Backstrom.
Why he'll beat Crosby: He's got the cushion and is a good enough pure playmaker to really pile up the assists. Assuming that the coaching change could wakeup Alex Ovechkin and he reverts back towards his 50 goal form, that's a lot of apples for Backstrom to pluck.
Why he won't: The uncertainty of the new Washington systems/coaching scheme/team cohesion is there. Who knows if it'll gel instantly. Also Backstrom hasn't scored too much at even strength this season (13 ES points in 22 games), he'd likely have to improve that to be a serious scoring title contender.
Statline: 17 gp 22p (8g+14a) 1.29 ppg
Synopsis: Coming back off a knee injury, Malkin has played focused and confidently and has the second highest PPG rate in the league behind Crosby.
Why he'll beat Crosby: He's 13 points up on Sid. Barring injury, it's going to be tough for Crosby to out-score Malkin by 13 if they're on the ice a lot together, specifically on the power play where Art Ross winners always feast. Case in point, as hot as Crosby's been, he's only out-scored Malkin by one point in his brief season so far.
Why he wont': Malkin's knee made him sit out seven games already, and Geno's been a streaky scorer in the past. If he gets cold or is hindered by his injury, that could give Crosby the extra time and space he would need to make up the gap.
Statline: 223 NHL players still have as many or more points than Sidney Crosby (9) currently does
Synopsis: Steven Stamkos has 15 goals (and 25 points) in 23 games. Kris Versteeg and Thomas Vanek are dripping with talent and already have 26 points. Joe Thornton, Anze Kopitar, Jonathan Toews and Tyler Seguin are all point/game players so far this season and all have double digit cushions over Crosby at the press time.
Why some of these guys will beat Crosby: They have too much talent and too much of a lead, some of them will play all 82 games and there's too much talent to deny.
Why they won't: Have you seen Crosby's determination? He's playing every shift like a man who's been chomping at the bit for 11 months.
Will Crosby win the Art Ross this year? Probably not. But after seeing what you've seen this past week, would you really feel comfortable betting against him? The great ones always accomplish what seems impossible and though Crosby would need a lot of breaks to go his way (staying in the lineup every night first and foremost). For once, it's just fun to sit back and watch Crosby play out there and not worry about his health status.