Scoring is nothing new to Tampa Bay Lightning forward Nikita Kucherov. The 25-year-old from Russia turned in a 100-point campaign in 2017-18 and already has 71 points (21 goals, 50 assists) in 43 games this season, putting him on track for the Art Ross trophy, the Hart Trophy and a historic year.
Taken No. 58 overall in 2011, he is the first player from that draft — which featured Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Gabriel Landeskog and Jonathan Huberdeau as its top three picks — to reach the 400-point milestone. He is also the first player since Jaromir Jagr in 2000 to hit the 70-point plateau in his first 43 games of a season. Kucherov could also shatter the franchise scoring record held by Vincent Lecavalier (108 points in 2006-07) and is on pace to break Tampa Bay’s record for assists in a season, held jointly by Brad Richards (68 in 2005-06) and Martin St. Louis (2010-11). And if his torrid pace continues, Kucherov could be the first player to top 130 points in a season during the salary cap era, eclipsing Joe Thornton’s 2005-06 MVP season of 125 points.
“We joke on the bench that whenever ‘Kuch’ gets the puck, we’re just waiting for something good to happen,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos told Diana C. Nearhos of the Tampa Bay Times.
“Everything looks so simple for him,” Stamkos said, “and almost elegant our there because of how gracefully he’s moving the puck and skating. He’s just a guy who makes the game look really easy, when the things you’re doing are really hard. ”
Kucherov tallied 10 goals and 25 assists through the end of November, but then Kucherov started taking things to another level: He had nine goals and 21 points in 14 games in December, good enough to earn the NHL’s first star for the month (shockingly enough). He added six more points in three games to start the new year. To put that in perspective: If you only count Kucherov’s production since Dec. 1 (36 points), he’d still be as productive in 17 games as Washington Capitals center Evgeny Kuznetsov has been all season.
Kucherov’s spot on Tampa Bay’s first power-play unit is certainly beneficial to his point total. The Lightning boasts the league’s most efficient power play this season (29.9 percent), and Kucherov has a league-leading 26 points with the man-advantage. However, he is equally dominant at even strength: Kucherov has the second-most first assists (22) while skating five-on-five, and no player generates more even-strength points per 60 minutes than he does this season.
And let’s not forget how much better he makes his primary linemates. When Kucherov, Tyler Johnson and Brayden Point have shared the ice this season Tampa Bay has outscored opponents 26-16 at even strength. That drops to a 10-9 disadvantage when Johnson and Point have to skate with someone else. And the aforementioned top power play has scored 32 of 43 power-play goals with Kucherov on the ice. The rate of shots, scoring chances and high-danger scoring chances on Tampa’s power play also shows a decline with Kucherov on the bench.
When a player goes on a scoring tear there is often a significant amount of luck involved, manifested in the form of an above-average shooting rate. Not in this case. Kucherov is scoring on 14.5 percent of his shots on net at even strength in 2018-19, only a very slight deviation from his career average heading into this season (14.4 percent). The team as a whole is converting 12.8 percent of shots with him on the ice; a rate comparable to his 2014-15 campaign (12.6 percent) in which he scored 29 goals. The team’s power play has converted almost 21 percent of its shots with Kucherov on the ice, the highest rate in six seasons, but the Lightning is also generating a six-year high in scoring chances with the man advantage, so an uptick in the conversion rate would be expected.
In other words, get ready to see Kucherov rewrite the history books.