The National Hockey League (NHL) is more and more becoming a young man's game. We're seeing once-dominant players fade into obscurity and retiring before they turn 35 years old, while first- and second-year players are thriving as opposed to being given bottom-six minutes early in their career before earning quality ice time. Back in the day - the 1990s and beyond - veteran players were favored over younger players who had yet to accomplish anything in the league; however, today, young players with potential are pushed into top-six forward or top-pairing defense roles to prove themselves worthy of the ice time. Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs scored 40 goals as a rookie last season, and while he's an exception as a generational player, it's unlikely he would have been given such an opportunity on a quality team in the 1970s.
That's why it's becoming increasingly difficult to predict the league's top goal scorers each year. About five years ago, you could bet your life on Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, Steven Stamkos, and even Corey Perry topping the goal scoring list. Crosby won the Rocket Richard Trophy last season, but he was trailed by Nikita Kucherov, Matthews, Brad Marchand, Vladimir Tarasenko, Jeff Skinner, and Patrik Laine, all of whom are under 30 years old, while Matthews and Laine are still teenagers. Expect to see more emerging young players in 2017-18 as well as the decline of once-dominant players, including these seven list below.
15 Can Score 30: Sebastian Aho
Jeff Skinner may have carried the Carolina Hurricane's offense in 2016-17, but he was aided by Finnish rookie Sebastian Aho, who was selected 35th overall by Carolina in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft. Aho proved himself as a rising star the year prior in international contests as well as with Karpat of SM-liiga, Finland's top league, where he recorded 45 points in 45 games.
Many wondered whether the 20 year old's offense would translate at the NHL level and he responded by scoring 24 goals and adding 25 assists to finish second in team scoring behind only Skinner, who had his best statistical season since his rookie year in 2010-11 thanks to playing alongside Aho. With an increased level of comfort in the league and an improving team, Aho could easily reach 30 this season.
14 Won't Hit 20: Patrick Eaves
Surprisingly, Patrick Eaves commanded a nice return when he was dealt from the Dallas Stars to the Anaheim Ducks at the NHL trade deadline last year. The Ducks sent a first-round pick to the Stars for Eaves, who was in the middle of a career year; a former first-round pick of the Ottawa Senators, Eaves hadn't scored more than 20 goals in a full season, but had 21 through 59 games with Dallas and added 11 in 20 games with Anaheim.
It was a worthy investment for the Ducks and Eaves' 32 goal season is worth celebrating. He turned 33 years old last season and it's highly unusual to see someone reach a career high in goals at that age. Likewise, it's also unreasonable to expect that output to continue. He's had injury issues throughout his career, which limited his goal-scoring output, and it's hard to imagine him being healthy for a full 82-game season.
13 Can Score 30: Jakob Silfverberg
One player the Ducks can expect an increase in goal production from is Swedish winger Jakob Silfverberg. Like Eaves, Silfverberg was originally drafted by the Ottawa Senators. He came to Anaheim in the Bobby Ryan trade back in 2013 and has been a nice secondary piece to the Ducks' offense, but hasn't excelled as a first-line scoring winger, at least not in the regular season.
The playoffs is a different story for Silfverberg as he's the Ducks' leading scorer through the past three playoffs with 37 points in 40 games. In contrast, he had only 39 points in 2014-15 and 2015-16 and 49 this past season. He did, however, score a career-high 23 goals last year and should see more power-play time this coming season due to the decline of Corey Perry.
12 Won't Hit 20: Phil Kessel
This might be a stretch, but we feel confident that even if Phil "The Thrill" Kessel reaches 20, it will take him until the end of the regular season. At first glance, it might seem ridiculous to suggest one of the best playoff performers of the past few seasons won't even score 20 goals in the regular season, but few people realize Kessel only scored 23 last season and 26 the year prior. In fact, the former 37-goal scorer hasn't topped 26 goals in the past three years.
Instead, the 29 year old has become more of a playmaker. Despite scoring only 23 goals last year, he finished third on the Stanley Cup-winning Penguins with 70 points. His decline hasn't come as rapidly as some anticipated, and he'll be a valuable player once again for the Penguins in 2017-18, but don't be surprised if he struggles to score 20 goals.
11 Can Score 30: Aleksander Barkov
When he's healthy, Aleksander Barkov is one of the best two-way centers in the league with an ever-improving offensive game. We would go as far as to suggest he's just as good as some of the more highly-regarded centers such as Anze Kopitar and Jonathan Toews, but because he plays in Florida he doesn't receive half of the attention. He also hasn't won a Stanley Cup, but believe it or not Barkov only turned 22 years old on September 2nd and has already topped 20 goals in two of his four NHL seasons.
He scored 28 in just 66 games in 2015-16 and had 21 in only 61 games last season. He's nearly unstoppable when both he and linemate Jonathan Huberdeau are on their game and, after a down year in 2016-17 with the Panthers, both players will be looking to do their best to help the team get back to the playoffs.
10 Won't Hit 20: Milan Lucic
A 29 year old native of Vancouver, British Columbia, Milan Lucic is still technically in his prime, but he's far from the physical force he once was in his early 20s with the Boston Bruins. Still, he has a decent history of goal-scoring ability as he notched 23 a year ago and has topped the 20-goal mark five times, including a 30-goal season in 2010-11.
If he plays with McDavid once again in 2017-18, Lucic should receive his chances to score, but given the fact he's lost a step in the past few years, the Oilers might opt to play him on another line. He certainly still has tremendous value to the club, however, and they won't be too disheartened if he fails to reach 20 goals.
9 Can Score 30: Marcus Johansson
Sometimes a change of scenery is best for a player's development. Marcus Johansson was a core part of the Washington Capitals offense for the past seven seasons, having consistently topped the 40-point mark, but he had a breakout season a year ago with 24 goals and 34 assists for 58 points, which ranked fourth on the team ahead of T.J. Oshie.
However, the Capitals decided they wanted to keep Oshie and, in order to do so, had to deal Johansson to stay under the salary cap. He was sent to the New Jersey Devils, a young team that just added first-overall pick Nico Hischier. In New Jersey, Johansson will be given every opportunity to lead the team's offense. He has only topped 20 goals twice in his career, but he's certainly a strong candidate to score 30 this coming season.
8 Won't Hit 20: James van Riemsdyk
If things go according to plan, the Toronto Maple Leafs will be an improved team in 2017-18, which could be a scary thing for its rivals in the Atlantic Division of the Eastern Conference. The Maple Leafs are loaded with young talent such as Matthews, William Nylander, Mitch Marner, and Connor Brown, and just added veteran winger Patrick Marleau via free agency.
The Leafs should have no trouble scoring goals, but there's only so much offensive opportunities to go around. Many speculated they might deal van Riemsdyk for a defenseman once they signed Marleau, but that hasn't happened; if JVR remains with Toronto throughout the season, he could be the winger whose ice time drops significantly as the team puts its trust in younger players.
7 Can Score 30: Jake Guentzel
A former third-round selection of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Jake Guentzel wasn't exactly a well-known commodity prior to the 2016-17 season, but injuries and a strong performance in the AHL - 42 points in 33 games - pushed him into the Penguins lineup, where he thrived playing alongside Sidney Crosby. In 40 regular season games, the Nebraska native scored 16 goals and added 17 assists.
However, it was in the playoffs where he really showcased his goal-scoring abilities, tallying 13 goals in 25 games and even earning Conn Smythe consideration before cooling down in the Stanley Cup Final. His 2016-17 scoring rate equals 33 goals over an 82-game season, but if he plays alongside Crosby an entire year he could even surpass that total. It won't be too long before be takes over Kessel's spot as the team's third-best forward.
6 Won't Hit 20: Patrice Bergeron
Make no mistake, Patrice Bergeron is one of the best two-way centers in the league; he even has the hardware to back it up as he's a four-time Frank J. Selke Trophy winner as the league's best defensive forward. He has topped 50 points and 20 goals in each of the past four seasons and has even surpassed 30 goals in two of those seasons, but there have been plenty of signs that show that Bergeron is on the downward slope of his career, at least in terms of offensive production.
Although he finished last season with 21 goals (which was still his lowest total since 2009-10), he had only five goals through his first 34 games. He was better once Claude Julien was fired, but he's now 32 years old and doesn't quite appear to be the dominant presence he once was. Expect him to score between 15 and 20 goals.
5 Can Score 30: Jack Eichel
Former Buffalo Sabres General Manager Tim Murray wasn't shy about voicing his disappointment when his team landed the second overall pick in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft. Murray had wanted Connor McDavid, the ultimate prize of that draft class, but instead ended up with Jack Eichel, who is about as good a consolation prize as you can get. As a rookie, Eichel recorded 56 points and added 57 this past season in 20 less games.
He has had his issues with leadership and is said to be one of the reasons for the firing of Dan Bylsma as the team's head coach, but there's no denying his talent when he's healthy. The Sabres are desperate for goal-scoring help and Eichel, who notched 24 in consecutive years, is due for a major breakout in 2017-18. 30 goals is setting the bar low.
4 Won't Hit 20: Anze Kopitar
Like Patrice Bergeron, Anze Kopitar is an aging center whose offensive capabilities are beginning to decline. Also like Bergeron, the Slovenian center is a former Frank J. Selke Trophy winner as the league's best defensive forward. His offensive decline, however, has been much more rapid than Bergeron's. Once a 34-goal scorer and consistent 20-plus goal scorer, Kopitar had only 16 goals in 2014-15. It looked as though he had proven that season was a blip when he responded with an impressive 25 goals and 49 assists in 2015-16, but he had a disastrous 2016-17 campaign.
Through 76 games last season, the 30 year old scored only 12 goals and added 40 assists. He took a backseat to scoring winger Jeff Carter, who led the team with 32 goals. By comparison, his 12 goals matched the total scored by defenseman Drew Doughty. It's hard to foresee Kopitar having another resurgent year.
3 Can Score 30: William Nylander
We previously mentioned James van Reimsdyk might have a hard time cracking the 20-goal mark, but one player who should benefit from JVR's decreased role on the Maple Leafs is Swedish winger William Nylander. Toronto has long-term plans to play Nylander at center, but for the upcoming season the crafty 21 year old will play on the wing and likely begin the year on a line with Auston Matthews, as he was for the better part of the 2016-17 season.
As a rookie last year, Nylander scored 22 goals and added 39 assists. By the end of the year, he had clearly earned the trust of Mike Babcock and was one of the team's most dynamic forwards. He could easily reach 30 goals with another season of experience under his belt.
2 Won't Hit 20: Jonathan Toews
Not to take away anything from Jonathan Toews, who is a solid first-line center with apparent great leadership skills, but he may be one of the most over-hyped players in the league. He was built as a Superstar due to leading the Blackhawks to three Stanley Cups and he deserves due credit for doing so, but it's not as though he has been a standout scorer in the regular season.
Toews' career high in points is 76, but that was back in 2010-11; he has only topped 60 points in two of the following six seasons, none of which he scored more than 28 goals. He had the worst goal-scoring season of his career last year with just 21 goals in 72 games. A short playoff run last year by the Blackhawks may have him rested heading into 2017-18, but it's hard to believe his offensive output doesn't continue to slide.
1 Can Score 30: Jonathan Drouin
Jonathan Drouin is arguably one of the most offensively gifted players in the league and the Montreal Canadiens better hope he has a breakthrough season or else they might be in jeopardy. The Canadiens dealt its best defense prospect Mikhail Sergachev to the Tampa Bay Lightning in exchange for Drouin, who is from Quebec and expected to thrive as a French Canadian star in a city where being French means a hell of a lot - and adds a hell of a lot of pressure.
However, Drouin has the pedigree to thrive under that pressure. He helped the Halifax Mooseheads win the Memorial Cup in 2013 and thrived last year with increased ice time in Tampa Bay, posting 53 points in 73 games. The Canadiens will give him every opportunity to reach 30 goals, because aside from Max Pacioretty, there aren't many other players on the team capable of doing so.
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