The NHL scoring race this year has been so volatile that it seems every few games the rankings shift dramatically behind the current points leader. Taylor Hall, Johnny Gaudreau, Connor McDavid, Blake Wheeler, Claude Giroux, Alex Ovechkin, and Anze Kopitar are among the players all leading their teams in scoring and in hot pursuit of the points scoring lead. However, three players at the top of the scoring race are clearly distinct from the rest of the pack: Nathan MacKinnon, Evgeni Malkin, and Nikita Kucherov. Their rates of production are so much higher than everybody else's, and their efficiency with ice time is unparalleled this year. This leads me to believe that they are the early favorites for the Hart Trophy, as through 60+ games they have been the three best skaters in the NHL.
These three players not only lead the entire NHL by far in terms of points per game, but also by points per 60 -- this means that they score more points than anybody else per game, and also score at a higher rate per minute of ice time than anybody else in the league. In terms of points production, these three players are by far the most efficient, and they happen to, as of March 2, 2018, rank first, second, and fourth in the NHL points race. Brad Marchand ranks fourth in these two categories, but is far behind in the actual scoring race with just 60 points as of today. The other player worth mentioning is Taylor Hall, who ranks fifth and seventh, respectively, on these lists. He currently ranks 11th in NHL scoring.
2017-2018 NHL Leaders: Points/60 as of March 2, 2018
2017-2018 NHL Leaders: Points/GP as of March 2, 2018
There will obviously be much talk about which players deserve to be nominated for the Hart Trophy this season. In terms of production alone, these three players are ahead of the pack. In terms of their performances within the context of their team's season, all three teams could be playoff-bound: Kucherov is having the most success on a team with other high-end scorers, while Malkin's team is also laden with veteran talent and in a comfortable playoff position; the player with the greatest influence on his team's chances is Nathan MacKinnon, whose Colorado Avalanche squad is on the cusp of making the playoffs after a disastrous 2016-17 season. Without MacKinnon, the Avalanche might not be in this close race for a playoff berth, and from a talent perspective they do not command anywhere near as much respect as Malkin or Kucherov's teams. The Penguins (Crosby, 69 points) and Lightning (Stamkos, 72 points) both have other players within ten points of their respective teams' scoring leaders. There is a slightly wider gap between MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen of 13 points.
With fewer than 20 games remaining in the season, it is possible that any of these three players will be the NHL scoring leader at the end of the season. Malkin (78 points) is four points behind Nikita Kucherov (82 points); Nathan MacKinnon (76 points) is six points behind the leader. Kucherov is currently injured. Connor McDavid, who would otherwise be a potential candidate with 77 points currently, ranks well bellow these three in terms of points per 60 -- 15th, in fact -- due to the nearly two minutes of extra TOI he receives per game than them (an average of 21:25 vs 19:57 for Kucherov, 19:28 for MacKinnon, and 18:57 for Malkin); he also ranks only fifth in points per game, and his team currently ranks 27th out of 31 in the NHL. McDavid is not a Hart Trophy candidate this season.
The wildcard, as mentioned, is Taylor Hall. He is the fifth-most efficient player in terms of points per game, seventh-most efficient in terms of points per 60, and is eleventh in NHL scoring with 70 points, 12 behind the leader. However, his team is in a playoff spot, and the gap between him and the second-highest scorer on the New Jersey Devils is 29 points (Hischier, 41 points). Hall is currently on a 23-game personal points streak. Blake Wheeler has, to a lesser extent, been at the forefront of his team's successful season with 73 points while the second-highest scorer on the Jets, Patrik Laine, has 55; the Jets are fifth in the NHL overall standings -- at this point in time, there are clearly four players ahead of him in terms of performance this season, so he would need to elevate his game further to be regarded as a potential finalist.
The scoring race remains volatile, but the four most effective scorers in the league are quite evident this season: Nathan MacKinnon, Evgeni Malkin, Nikita Kucherov, and Taylor Hall.
While the final result of the Art Ross Trophy race might be just as unpredictable, the Hart Trophy race is becoming clearer with each passing day with early favorites already obvious.