It's not hard to imagine that Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers could win the NHL scoring title in his second season in the League.
McDavid, who turns 20 on Jan. 13, would be the second-youngest player to win the Art Ross Trophy. Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins was 19 when he won it in 2006-07 by leading the League with 120 points. Wayne Gretzky of the Edmonton Oilers also was 19 when he tied Marcel Dionne of the Los Angeles Kings for the League lead in 1979-80 with 137 points, but Dionne was awarded the scoring title because he had 53 goals to Gretzky's 51.
One thing working in McDavid's favor is that it shouldn't take 120 or 137 points for him to lead the NHL this season. Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks won the scoring title last season with 106 points, and the average of the past six scoring leaders is 102 points. This calculation extrapolates the 60 points that Martin St. Louis of the Tampa Bay Lightning had in the 48-game 2012-13 season to 102.5 for an 82-game schedule.
With 48 points in 45 games last season, it appears that McDavid has a long way to go to reach 102. Even when his scoring total is extrapolated for 82 games, the resulting 87 points is still 15 short of that target. But appearances can be deceiving.
Video: VAN@EDM: McDavid puts puck past Markstrom for a PPG
Young forwards develop their offensive game quickly. Gretzky's scoring increased by 18 percent in his second season and Crosby's 120 points were 21 percent more than he had in his first NHL season, so if McDavid remains healthy, it's not unreasonable to expect his scoring to increase by the 17 percent required to reach 102 points in 82 games.
A closer study of his scoring totals with Erie of the Ontario Hockey League reveals how quickly McDavid's offensive production can improve. Using modern metrics to convert his OHL scoring to an NHL standard, McDavid's scoring increased from an NHL equivalent of 0.33 points per game at age 16 to 0.56 at age 17 and 0.80 at age 18, and then 1.07 with the Oilers at age 19. Based on that trajectory, the necessary increase to 1.24 points per game is within reach this season.
As a working example of McDavid's potential to increase his offensive numbers, compare his performance prior to Nov. 3, 2015, when he broke his left clavicle, to his scoring rate after his return on Feb. 2, 2016. His scoring increased from 0.92 points per game (12 points in 13 games) to 1.13 points per game (36 points in 32 games). That's a 22 percent improvement.
Another reason to believe McDavid will increase his scoring is the likelihood that he'll get more ice time. He averaged 15:08 of even-strength ice time per game last season, fifth among Oilers forwards. Imagine what his scoring totals would have been if McDavid had the same amount of ice time as Kane, who led Blackhawks forwards with an average even-strength ice time of 17:14 per game.
On a per-minute basis at even strength, McDavid scored at a higher rate than Kane. With 34 even-strength points in 681:18, McDavid averaged 2.99 points per 60 minutes at even strength, compared to 2.93 for Kane, who had 69 points with 1,413:30 of even-strength ice time. This means that an increase in playing time could be enough for McDavid to win the scoring race, even if his scoring rate doesn't improve.
There's every reason to believe that McDavid will be given a chance to lead Edmonton's offense this season. Taylor Hall, the Oilers' scoring leader in three of the past four seasons, was traded to the New Jersey Devils for defenseman Adam Larsson on June 29. The Oilers also signed unrestricted free agent left wing Milan Lucic to a seven-year contract July 1; that should provide McDavid with the big (6-foot-3, 233 pounds), crease-crashing linemate he will require to maximize his scoring at even strength and on the power play.
Video: EDM@LAK: McDavid forces turnover for go-ahead goal
Even on a secondary line last season, McDavid was a big part of the Oilers' offense, so making him the No. 1 center could significantly boost his scoring. McDavid scored or assisted on 34 of the 41 even-strength goals (82.9 percent) the Oilers scored while he was on the ice. By comparison, Kane had a point on 69 of the Blackhawks' 84 even-strength goals (82.1 percent) when he was on the ice.
To further demonstrate the potential impact of placing McDavid on the top line, it's possible to measure to what extent he boosted the scoring rates of his linemates. From the information gathered in NHL game files, statisticians such as David Johnson of Hockey Analysis can measure how much time each player has spent on the ice with McDavid and how many points he had.
McDavid primarily played on a secondary line with Benoit Pouliot and Nail Yakupov prior to his injury. When he returned, he played mostly with right wing Jordan Eberle and Pouliot or Patrick Maroon at left wing. With McDavid, Yakupov's scoring rate improved from 0.83 points per 60 minutes to 2.63, Eberle's from 1.38 to 2.64, Pouliot's from 1.30 to 2.94 and Maroon's from 1.04 to 3.14. With results like that on a secondary line, it's easy to predict even greater success on the top line with someone like Lucic.
Winning the scoring race is a tremendous achievement at any age. With increased ice time and natural progressions, it's possible McDavid can do it in 2016-17.