In tonight’s game against the Montreal Canadiens, Nikita Kucherov scored his 40th goal of the season on a swift shot over Carey Price’s stick. With the goal, Kucherov joins Steven Stamkos, Vincent Lecavalier, Marty St. Louis, and Brian Bradley as the only members of the Lightning to score 40 or more goals in a season.
The soft-spoken winger has been building to this since he joined the organization. Drafted in the second round of the Lightning’s historic 2011 draft, Kucherov spent two years in the QMJHL before joining the Syracuse Crunch in 2013-14. He was simply too good for the AHL, scoring 13 goals in 17 games, all but forcing the Lightning to call him up to the NHL.
In his debut, on a night the Lightning honored Marty St. Louis for appearing in 1,000 games, Kucherov scored on his very first shot in the NHL. He scored eight more times in 52 games that season, and also appeared in two playoff games.
The next season, Kucherov blossomed. United with Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat to form “The Triplets” Kucherov finished tied with Johnson for second on the team with 29 goals (Steven Stamkos led with 43). His 65 points was good for third on the team. He added another ten goals (including two overtime winners) in the playoffs as the Lightning made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final.
It was more of the same in 2015-16. Kucherov scored 30 goals in the regular season and led the team with 66 points. He added another 11 goals in the playoffs as the Lightning were eliminated in the Eastern Conference Finals by the Pittsburgh Penguins.
With his entry-level deal expiring and the Lightning dealing with Stamkos’ free agency there was some speculation that another team could sign the 22-year-old to an offer sheet. As the summer dragged on, Stamkos signed his new deal. Victor Hedman signed a new deal. Alex Killorn signed a new deal. Still Kucherov sat with no signed contract. (His brother had fun with the negotiations while Nikita worked out in Russia to get ready for the World Cup of Hockey.)
The World Cup came and went (Kucherov scored twice in four games) and still no contract. Training camp came and went without a deal. Then finally, two days before the puck dropped on the season, he agreed to a three-year deal worth $4.766 million per season.
He’s justified his big raise with a career year. He leads the team in goals and points, is second to Victor Hedman in assists. On the power play, where he’s helped the team lead the league in goals, he has 17 goals and 15 assists. The 32 points are are one behind Hedman for the team lead.
League wide, Kucherov is wedging his name into the Hart Trophy conversation. While the MVP award is most likely Connor McDavid’s to lose, the Lightning winger should garner more than a handful of votes, especially if Tampa makes it into the playoffs. While Hedman and Drouin have had excellent seasons, this team would be planning golf trips for late April if it wasn’t for Kucherov.
Kucherov is second to Sidney Crosby in goals and is in the top 10 for points. All of this while appearing in only 73 games, fewer than both Crosby and McDavid. Three times this season he’s been honored as one of the three stars of the week by the NHL. He also played in his first career NHL All-Star Game.
The first half of the season was a bit of a roller coaster in regards to goals. Kucherov scored once in October, but he did pick up seven assists. A blistering November, ten goals and eight assists, was followed by a slow December where he only scored two goals, but did add seven more assists.
As the calendar flipped from 2016 to 2017 so did his game. Kucherov went from primary setting players up to becoming a finisher. In January he scored six goals, despite a slow start to February (two goals in seven games) he finished with five goals in the last three games. The big turning point was a game in which he didn’t even score.
On February 19th, the Lightning beat Colorado, 3-2, in overtime. Kucherov was kept off the scoreboard, but he did register a career-high nine shots. In his previous three games he had combined for just three shots and recorded no points. Following the Colorado game he picked up 14 points in the next six games.
Just when the Lightning have needed him the most, he’s produced his best month of the season in March. Kucherov has notched 12 goals and added ten assists as he’s helped keep the Lightning in the playoff hunt.
He’s had two hat tricks this season and seven other multi-goal games. As noted, 17 of his goals have come on the power play (which leads the league). Six of his goals are game winners. Not included in those game winning goals was perhaps his most impressive goal of the season. He didn’t even have to shoot it to score:
The 40-goal plateau is a huge mark for a players. In the last few seasons only three or four players have accomplish that feat. In addition to Kucherov and Crosby, Auston Matthews is the the only other player in the NHL that might get there. Is this the limit for Kucherov’s goal-scoring abilities? According to a fellow Russian of note, no:
"I think easily he can score 50," Alex Ovechkin said, “Obviously he's getting better and better every year. He's matured. And with the skill he has, he has the typical European skill, more of a Russian guy, it's always nice to watch him grow as a player."