It took two weeks and thirty other thoughts, but the Tampa Bay Lightning finally return to Elliotte Friedman’s weekly column. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Since many of the thoughts deal with behind the scenes drama or roster moves, it’s good news that the Lightning don’t feature prominently in these weekly posts.
This week, Friedman references the Lightning a couple of times. First, he mentions Marty St. Louis as a player who should be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame next year. While St. Louis deflected the question when asked last weekend, there are few folks in Tampa who would disagree with the assertion that the club’s all-time leading points leader deserves a plaque.
Friedman’s final thought of the column concerned another member of the organization that is on his way to building an impressive resume, Nikita Kucherov. His thought:
Nikita Kucherov is at 16 goals in 18 games. I want him to make a run at 50 in 50. If there’s one thing I’d like to see more in the NHL, it’s legitimate pursuit of individual records/accomplishments. The coaching is so good now that it’s so hard to challenge the standards. The driven and determined Kucherov has it in him to do great things in a team-oriented way. I’d love to see it.
Seemingly every year a player scores a bunch of goals in October and talk of 50 goals in 50 games surfaces. The Lightning aren’t immune to this trend. Back in 2010, Steven Stamkos started with 19 goals in the team’s first 19 games. Talk started about him becoming the sixth player, and the first since Brett Hull in 1991-92, to accomplish the feat. In his next 31 games Stamkos scored another 19 goals and fell short of the mark.
Oddly enough, the following season, the one in which he scored 60 goals, the 50 in 50 talk never really surfaced because he “only” had 11 in his first 20 games. Since that season, a few players have started off hot and prompted the 50 in 50 talk. Last week, Terrence Doyle from fivethirtyeight.com wrote about the mystical pursuit and listed the last players that had at least 14 goals in their team’s first 15 games.
Four of those players (Simon Gagne, Dany Heatley, Daniel Alfredsson, and Jaromir Jagr) accomplished it in 2005-06, the post-lockout year when scoring rocketed up due to teams adjusting to the new rules and an early season crackdown on obstruction and interference. Alex Ovechkin in 2008-09, Stamkos in 2010-11 and Alex Steen in 2013-14 also posted similar numbers. As Doyle points out, not only did no one accomplish the deed, only Jagr hit 50 goals in the season.
Since Stamkos’ 60 goal season in 2011-12, only Ovechkin has scored 50 goals in a season (which he’s done 3 times). Simply put, it’s hard to score 50 goals in the NHL.
To do so in just 50 games is almost impossible. Goalies are bigger and better than they were in the 90s, team defense is better and Kucherov has to fight through a lot more interference than Wayne Gretzky or Hull had to. The constant media attention doesn’t help either. It won’t be long before reporters are asking Kucherov about it on a daily basis. In the past week several publications have already started the speculation. [Including us! - Acha]
In order to accumulate the 16 goals he’s scored in 18 games, Kucherov has averaged over 4 shots per game and is clicking along at a 21.9% shooting percentage. Neither one of those numbers are sustainable based on his career averages of 2.71 and 15.1 respectively. His number will regress.
Not only that, he might not be selfish enough to score 50 in 50. He is an extremely team-focused player. He was raised in the Russian system where skill and passing are emphasized over individual prowess. His contemporary Evgeny Kuznetsov describes it as such: “If I score three goals but I don’t have an assist, he [Kuznetsov’s father] texts me. Because he teach me to be unselfish. You have to play for your partner. This is very Russian, this principle. I guess because of the Red Machine.”
Even last season, a season in which he scored 40 goals and was the dominant threat in Stamkos’ absence the coaches has to encourage him to shoot more. In January, Coach Cooper told the Tampa Bay Times, "The one thing with 'Kuch,' we've talked with him, he's got to shoot more. He's somebody that knows how to put the puck in the net and is probably being a little too unselfish and trying to set up other guys, which he's done a heck of job of.”
Granted, it’s advice Kucherov has taken to heart, and he has shot the puck a lot more, but it is still his nature to look to set up teammates. He will pass up a good shot if he thinks a teammate is in a better position to score. The good news for the team is that one of his options, Stamkos, is a pretty darn good shooter.
That unselfishness is part of what makes the Lightning so dangerous. Defenses can’t collapse around Kucherov because he will find a way to get the puck over to Stamkos or another teammate. The power play goal against Columbus is proof of that. Three times on the shift he dealt the puck instead of shooting it and in the end it resulted in an easy goal for Stamkos.
Friedman’s point of seeing players strive for individual goals/success is an interesting one. Hockey, especially at the NHL level, is so team oriented that any player admitting that they are trying for individual glory would be treated as a pariah. If Kucherov or John Tavares came out and said, “You know what, I want to score 50 in 50, I want the puck as much as possible,” the power of the hot takes would rival a nuclear bomb.
But would it be such a bad thing? Could a couple of players being more selfish when it came to taking shots make things a little more exciting? I’m all for Coach Cooper putting Kucherov on the ice any time there is an empty net at the end of the game. It would be hilarious to look at a box score and see Kucherov with 17 shots on goal one game. It’s not going to happen, but it would be great to talk about.