Maybe people don’t know enough about his personality, or maybe it’s just the market he plays in, but it doesn’t seem like Nikita Kucherov gets enough credit for being an elite player in the NHL.
But after he tied the Tampa Bay Lightning record for points on Tuesday with 108 – Vincent Lecavalier did it in 17 more games in 2006-07 – it’s time to really look at Kucherov as one of the best players of the his generation already.
Tampa as a whole has been unstoppable this season. The Lightning hold a 17-point advantage over the Boston Bruins for the top spot in the NHL standings and could be the fifth team to achieve at least 125 points in a season and the first since the Detroit Red Wings in 1995-96. And while the depth of their roster has been outstanding to say the least, Kucherov has been the driving force behind much of the offense for the Lightning this year, given he has contributed to 41 percent of Tampa's 263 goals this season.
His rise to NHL stardom was a rather quiet one, which is understandable given he joined the Lightning when Steven Stamkos was all the buzz. Kucherov had opportunities to play with Stamkos and Martin St-Louis during his 2013-14 rookie season, but he wasn’t showing signs of greatness at that point.
Kucherov has scored at least 30 goals in four of his six seasons, and his worst year of full-season duty saw him finish with 29 goals and 65 points in 2014-15. Since then, Kucherov has seen his point totals increase quite drastically, hitting the 100-point mark for the first time as a 24-year-old last season.
So, why aren’t more people talking about Kucherov?
Some of the greatest Russians to ever play the game occupy NHL teams at this very minute. We’re still watching Alex Ovechkin in his prime, and Evgeni Malkin is still a fantastic player despite getting overshadowed by another talented centerman on the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Yet, Ovechkin, considered to be one of the greatest goal-scorers the NHL has ever seen, has 383 points in the past five seasons compared to Kucherov’s 424 from the ages of 21 to 25, a 41-point difference despite Ovechkin playing nine more games. And yes, Ovechkin brings a lot more to the Washington Capitals than the ability to score around 50 goals a season (and he’s got a nice ring on his finger, too), but you have to wonder what it will take for Kucherov to earn as much acclamation as Ovi. Ovechkin did, however, record 508 points from the ages of 21 to 25, but his best era-adjusted season of 122 points in 2007-08 would just miss Kucherov's mark from this season.
Just how well is Kucherov playing this year? Unless he’s injured, there’s a very unlikely chance Patrick Kane, who sits 14 points behind Kucherov, can win the scoring title. If the pace was to continue, that gap would be the third-largest in the past decade, with Kane's 17-point advantage over Jamie Benn in 2015-16 and Sidney Crosby's 17-point cushion over Ryan Getzlaf two years prior sitting ahead of him. Something to consider: Kucherov’s pace would give him the most points by any Art Ross winner since Mario Lemieux’s 161-point campaign in 1995-96.
But the scoring title wouldn’t be the only noteworthy achievement Kucherov could have in the regular season. He is on pace for 132 points this year, which would give him the highest single-season point total by a Russian forward ever.
Alexander Mogilny has been considered by many to be one of the greatest Russian players ever, recording 127 points in 1992-93 in a time where very few Russians were impact players in the league. But if Kucherov continues to trend like he has this year, he’ll pass the total with a few points to spare when the season is all said and done.
Mogilny was 23 years old at the time, while Kucherov will finish the regular season as a 25-year-old. While more experience may play a factor in Kucherov’s campaign, he has nearly 30 more points than Brayden Point for the Tampa scoring lead, while a lot of Mogilny’s success was linked to the stellar play by Pat LaFontaine, who had 148 points in ‘92-93. Keep in mind that NHL teams played 84 games that season, meaning Kucherov’s has two fewer games to get the job done.
If you look at projected adjusted stats, Kucherov is looking at a 123-point season, good to tie for the 48th-best season in NHL history. For comparison, Mogilny would sit 203rd in that category with an era-adjusted total of 103.
We're in an era when fewer players hit 100 points in a season. In the past decade, there have been 16 instances of players hitting the century-point mark, with Kucherov holding claim to two of them. Eleven players are on pace for 100 points this year, and while that’s not likely to happen with just under 20 games to go in the season, it’s still a far cry from the 21 that managed to do so in '92-93.
Kucherov is doing everything right that would suggest he’s one of the best players in the NHL right now. Maybe a couple of awards to his name in June will be what it takes to cement that statement.