January 29, 2013; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby (87) skates with the puck against the New York Islanders during the first period at the CONSOL Energy Center. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Bet on Sidney Crosby to win the 2013 Art Ross Trophy

Before the current 48-game NHL season started, I predicted Sidney Crosby would approach if not surpass the 90-point barrier. In a typical year that level of output would be below average for Crosby, who has scored 112 points for every 80 games in his pro career.

But in this lockout-shortened season, assuming Crosby plays every game, a 90-point total translates to a 1.875 per-game rate. Sid has never produced at that pace over a 40-game sample, although he’s been at 1.61 since the start of the 2010-11 season.

February 3, 2013; Washington, DC, USA; Washington Capitals goalie Braden Holtby (70) makes a save on Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby (87) in the third period at Verizon Center. The Penguins won 6-3. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

I bring this up because, after a six-point weekend, Crosby is tied for seventh in the league in scoring with 13 points, six behind Buffalo’s Thomas Vanek for the NHL lead. The 25-year-old Penguins’ captain has put his concussion-related problems behind him and is by all accounts stronger than he’s ever been.

Intangibles aside, I can pinpoint three specific reasons why, despite a start a little slower than I expected, Crosby will threaten 90 points and win his second Art Ross Trophy:

1. Chris Kunitz’s revitalization – Crosby has company atop the Penguins’ scoring list through nine games, as fellow superstar Evgeni Malkin has 12 points, as does No. 87′s oft-linemate Kunitz. Following Monday’s scoring change, Kunitz officially netted five goals over the Penguins’ two-win weekend, with Crosby assisting on four of them.

As much as Sid has made himself into an elite goal-scorer since 2009 – he has 95 in his last 153 contests – his first thought will always be to pass. With Kunitz finding his touch, Crosby will have at least one reliable even-strength set-up option.

2. Power-play comfort zone - Since the Penguins returned to last year’s power-play configuration, with James Neal back in a traditional forward’s role, Evgeni Malkin helping Kris Letang at the point, Kunitz around the net and Crosby working down low, they’ve posted three man-advantage goals in 11 realistic opportunities. (This isn’t counting their empty chance in the final eight seconds of Sunday’s win at Washington.)

Crosby got the primary assist on two of those three tallies, and it’s realistic to expect him to factor in on most Penguins PPGs until he retires. An effective power-play attack means a productive Crosby, whose presence near the net will also allow him to continue to make use of his superb redirection abilities as Letang, Malkin and Neal fire shots from all angles.

3. Shot volume - It’s still a small sample size, but Crosby has averaged over four shots per game this season, the highest rate on the Penguins. As advanced statistics tell us, raw shot totals are reliable measures of how much a player is contributing at the offensive end. The subjective “quality” of scoring chances is almost immaterial as long as a player is generating shots on goal, either by himself or via his teammates.

If Crosby can continue to accrue anywhere in the vicinity of four shots a night, I like his chances to regularly write his name on the scoresheet. Plus, according to Behind the Net’s numbers, the Penguins average better than a shot per minute at even strength when Crosby is on the ice. Among Pittsburgh forwards, only Malkin has a better rate, and he’s played two fewer 5-on-5 minutes per game than Crosby.

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Why care about the scoring title? Well, it’s self-evident that if the Penguins’ superstars are generating points at an elite level, the team’s chances of securing a high seed in the Stanley Cup playoffs increase significantly.

Crosby and Malkin should be neck-and-neck all season for the Art Ross Trophy, but with the way No. 87 has been playing, I’d wager on him to bring home the franchise’s second consecutive scoring title – and its 15th in 25 seasons.

Tags: Evgeni Malkin NHL Pittsburgh Penguins Sidney Crosby

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