Sat. Feb 24th, 2024

TAMPA — As the Lightning enter the All-Star break, Nikita Kucherov is playing the best hockey of his already illustrious career. The right wing leads the NHL in scoring with 85 points, one more than Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon.

The two players have exchanged the lead for most of the past month. Barring injury, they likely will continue to do so through the end of the regular season. They’ve both been that consistent.

This is the time of the season talk about the top contenders for the Hart Trophy, given annually to the NHL’s most valuable player, becomes prevalent. But from a national perspective, MacKinnon is widely considered the frontrunner, followed by everybody else.

Kucherov, 30, is on pace for 142 points, which would better his 2018-19 Hart Trophy season, when he scored a career-best and league-leading 128. With 32 goals in 49 games, he also is on pace to shatter another career high (41 in 2018-19).

The Lightning have lost significant firepower in recent offseasons, so Kucherov — already one of the league’s top playmakers — has taken it upon himself to assume more of the goal-scoring load.

“This stretch has been pretty amazing,” captain Steven Stamkos said Thursday. “And you look at what MacKinnon is doing and everyone’s talking about how he’s playing, and I think Kuch took the point lead back (Thursday)? I don’t want to use the word ‘surprising,’ because, like I always say, I see the work that he puts in. So, there’s a correlation.”

So, why hasn’t Kucherov received more Hart Trophy love?

A poll of writers last week tabbed MacKinnon as the midseason favorite, as he received eight of 14 first-place votes. Kucherov got just one vote for first and finished second, 12 points behind MacKinnon. NHL on TNT analyst Paul Bissonnette last week posted on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, that MacKinnon was the “top guy,” followed by the Maple Leafs’ Auston Matthews, with “a few guys tied at third.”

The case for Kucherov

Lightning center Brayden Point (21), far left, defenseman Victor Hedman (77), left wing Steven Stamkos (91) and right wing Nikita Kucherov (86) celebrate a goal scored by Kucherov (86) Thursday against the Arizona Coyotes in Tampa.Lightning center Brayden Point (21), far left, defenseman Victor Hedman (77), left wing Steven Stamkos (91) and right wing Nikita Kucherov (86) celebrate a goal scored by Kucherov (86) Thursday against the Arizona Coyotes in Tampa. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Statistically, the comparison between Kucherov and MacKinnon is close. Kucherov has more goals, points, power-play goals and owns a better shooting percentage.

But two numbers best illustrate Kucherov’s value. He has played a role in more of his team’s goals, earning a point in nearly half of the Lightning’s this season (48.6%, compared to MacKinnon’s 44.2). And Kucherov’s point total is 31 points higher than his team’s next-highest scorer (Brayden Point, with 54) despite playing with some of the NHL’s best in Point, Stamkos and Victor Hedman. MacKinnon’s point total is just 18 ahead of Colorado’s next-highest scorer (Mikko Rantanen, with 66).

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Kucherov also is on pace for a career high in ice time. He rarely comes off the ice on power plays and has played a consistent two-way game in recent weeks.

“You look at the teams we’ve had in the past, and we’ve talked about this year’s team, maybe a little transition year, … (so) for him to be doing what he’s doing is even more impressive,” Stamkos said. “I know every team has some really good players that each guy plays with, but the discrepancy in points versus MacKinnon for our team with what Kuch has done is pretty amazing.”

Ultimately, a team’s success matters. When Kucherov won the Hart in 2019, the Lightning had a record-setting Presidents’ Trophy-winning regular season. Currently, they’re fighting for a playoff spot. The last player to win the trophy for a middling team was the Taylor Hall for the Devils in 2018.

Lightning coach Jon Cooper identified two reasons Kucherov doesn’t receive more national attention.

“One, we play most of our games 1,200 miles or whatever it is away from Toronto,” Cooper said. “And two, we’re not high enough up in the standings. (The Oilers’ Connor) McDavid wasn’t even being mentioned, but now he’s going to be mentioned now that he’s climbing the standards. The more we win, the more (Kucherov) he will get.”

More efficiency than flash

Lightning right wing Nikita Kucherov (86) works to get around Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Ryan Shea (5) during a game in December in Tampa.Lightning right wing Nikita Kucherov (86) works to get around Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Ryan Shea (5) during a game in December in Tampa. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Kucherov is a dynamic player worthy of highlight shows and social media views, but at his best he makes difficult plays look easy. Plus, playing in a market that doesn’t garner significant national attention (despite numerous deep postseason runs) might limit the number of people who see how well he’s playing.

“With Kuch, his goal is to be as smooth as possible,” Lightning forward Nick Paul said. “He doesn’t want to make it look like he’s trying, so when he goes through three guys, if he doesn’t need to make an extra stick handle, he won’t. He’ll kind of hold it there, not look at the guy once and then backhand it right on his tape.

“With Kuch, it’s all about being smooth and efficient. He’s not doing a toe drag, go through another guy’s legs and then do a spin-a-rama. He’s still going through two guys but it makes it look like it’s easy.”

The Lightning don’t have the scoring punch they possessed in previous seasons, and there’s no question that’s why Kucherov is shooting and scoring more. He knows the more he scores, the more opponents have to account for his shot, which opens up space for his teammates. Cooper has raved about Kucherov’s play away from the puck this season and how every step he takes has a purpose.

“I’d tell people just to watch him play,” Paul said. “And really watch him play, not just kind of be on your phone and just look at numbers. Actually watch what he does out there, and it’s crazy.”

Will his performance speak for him?

Lightning forward Nikita Kucherov speaks with reporters on media day in September in Tampa.Lightning forward Nikita Kucherov speaks with reporters on media day in September in Tampa. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

The Hart Trophy is voted on by members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association. To say a player’s popularity with the media doesn’t play a role in voting — whether right or wrong — would be misleading.

Kucherov prefers to let his play do his talking. He dislikes interviews and doesn’t do many, especially for a player consistently viewed among the league’s best. This season, despite wearing an “A” on his jersey as an alternate captain, he’s avoided postgame interview requests even after milestone games. He doesn’t like to talk about himself, and when he does his answers are often short.

Friday, Kucherov said he hasn’t paid attention to the Hart Trophy discussion this season. Asked this week why the Lightning don’t receive more recognition nationally, he was typically brief: “Probably should ask you guys. You guys are talking about it. It’s you guys. … What else can we do? We can’t go out there and talk for ourselves.”

His teammates are more than willing to do the talking for him. They know it’s not his thing.

But are enough people listening?

“We’re not the biggest market in the NHL,” Stamkos said. “And although we’ve had a ton of success, that’s still just the way it is. … The fact that we’re right in the mix, too, in the playoffs, so he should be getting more credit.”

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