Sidney Crosby ran away from his competition in the race for the Art Ross Trophy for most points this past season, but 2014-15 could see a few players, including the Toronto Maple Leafs' Phil Kessel, challenge the best player in the game for the coveted prize.
If Crosby remains healthy throughout the entire season, it is tough to bet against him, but Kessel is one of a handful of players who may be able to push the native of Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia.
Expect Steven Stamkos to be in this mix along with Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf, Claude Giroux, Patrick Kane, Tyler Seguin and Taylor Hall.
Kessel should also be in this conversation. He's been a very durable player over the past few seasons. He has not missed a regular-season game since the 2009-10 season. This gives him an edge on a number of players mentioned earlier who have missed significant portions of seasons over the past four years.
At 26 years of age, Kessel is entering his prime years offensively. Much like Crosby and Giroux, these next two or three seasons, barring anything unforeseen, should be the best seasons of his career.
In his last 212 NHL regular-season games, Kessel has put up 214 points. There is every reason to believe that there is room to put up bigger totals here.
Kessel had only 20 power-play points last season, while Crosby, Giroux, Seguin and Getzlaf all had more than that. Of the players who finished ahead of Kessel in points, only Perry had less power-play points; Giroux and Crosby had almost 40.
It would be a stretch to see Kessel double his power-play output, but another 10 points could be reasonable. The Leafs were in the top five in the NHL in terms of power-play percentage at 19.8 percent.
If young defenders Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner continue to improve, there is reason to believe that the Leafs' power play will be improved over last season. Cody Franson and Dion Phaneuf get significant power-play minutes, but don't be surprised if Rielly and Gardiner get more minutes with the man advantage given their mobility and offensive instincts.
Furthermore, Kessel is an opportunistic sniper who has consistently had a shot percentage over 12 the past three seasons. There's no reason to believe that number will change significantly next year.
With a similar talent level and even more experience on both units, seeing Kessel's numbers grow, even if modestly, seems reasonable.
Another important factor is the growth of Kessel's linemates. Tyler Bozak has begun to produce more offensively, and James van Riemsdyk looks to be trending upward as well. This should help Kessel's even-strength numbers, particularly his assist total.
Bozak and JVR could both reach 70 points in 2014-15 if the line continues to mature as a unit. More secondary scoring from the Leafs could help ease the burden on this line. If two or three lines are offensive threats, opponents' defensive resources will be spread thin.
The last player to win the Art Ross Trophy while playing for a relatively weak team was Jarome Iginla with the Calgary Flames in 2001-02. That could be a factor this year, as the Leafs have not been very good over the past 10 seasons.
It is difficult to predict how much better the Leafs might be in 2014-15. It is highly unlikely they will be worse, as there have been some good upgrades in the bottom-six forward group. The defence core will be more mature since Roman Polak and Stephane Robidas should add more stability.
The Eastern Conference continues to be significantly weaker than the Western Conference, which bodes well for the Leafs. The West was 246-150-52 against the East in 2013-14, per DailyFaceoff.com. This trend is likely to continue next season.
With several players entering their prime offensive years and the Leafs bolstering their forward group, don't be surprised if the club nets three goals per game instead of the 2.71 produced in 2013-14.
Defensive play will be the decisive factor in how good the team is. The Leafs must be better at not getting hemmed in in their own end for the better part of shifts.
The more Kessel can play in the offensive zone, the more scoring chances should be generated, and based on his historical output, there's reason to believe that he could be the Art Ross Trophy winner in 2014-15.
All stats are available on NHL.com unless noted otherwise.
Like the new article format? Send us feedback!