Nikita Kucherov has accomplished plenty of great things for the Tampa Bay Lightning in his five-year career. He’s been a driver for one of the best teams in the NHL over the last four seasons, and the Lightning’s resurgence as a franchise coinciding with his arrival is no coincidence. Last season, he made his way into the Hart conversation early in the year before being surpassed in the spring by players who got hot during the playoff stretch run.
This is the year for Kucherov to finally collect some hardware for his trophy case. He’s due. Beyond due, in fact. In total, he’s had one of the best five-year starts to an NHL career in history. And over the last four seasons, he’s been one of the best players in the league. Possibly even THE best. That’s quite a claim to make, but supporting it is surprisingly easy.
To aid us in our analysis, we can turn to Wins Above Replacement (WAR). WAR is a stat that helps measure a player’s value by taking into account as much information as possible to determine how many wins that player provides above a replacement level player. Think of a replacement level player as the 13th forward or 7th defender on an NHL team.
The following dashboard shows the top ten skaters in two different versions of WAR over the last four seasons. One is via Corsica and the other is via Evolving Hockey. Both attempt to measure the same thing but do so via slightly different methods. The top graph combines the two stats by taking the average. This is NOT a statistically rigorous way to combine them but simplicity works for our purposes here.
According to Corsica, Kucherov is second in the NHL in WAR since 2014. According to Evolving Hockey, he is 4th. And combining the two models, he is 1st. Let me restate that just for clarity: Nikita Kucherov has the most WAR of any skater in the NHL over the last four seasons. That means by the best measure we have available, he has been the most valuable skater in the league over the last four seasons.
We all know Kucherov is great. But even I didn’t realize he was THAT great. In fairness, the last four seasons is an arbitraty cutoff. If we looked at the last three, Connor McDavid would take over the lead. But even so, this is strong evidence that Kucherov is in contention for being the second best player in the NHL.
And the second best player in the NHL deserves to win a trophy. He was in the Hart Trophy conversation last season and if he continues to play this way, he’ll deserve to be in it again. For him, the key could be hitting his hot streak at the right time. Last year, he lit up the league in the fall but slowed in the spring as the playoffs approached. Had that timing been reversed, I might not be writing this article.
If not the Hart, then Kucherov could make another run at the Art Ross. Over the last four seasons, he is fourth in scoring behind Sidney Crosby, Patrick Kane (puke), and Jamie Benn. He is the highest scoring player in that time frame to not have won an Art Ross in his career. The presence of McDavid will make it challenging for anyone else to win an Art Ross in the near future but Kucherov might be the most likely contender.
Kucherov started to receive the attention he deserves from the national media during the 2017-2018 season. But just saying he’s a great player isn’t enough. He is among the handful of best players in the game. And over the past few seasons, he has a compelling case to be in the top three.
Kucherov signed a new contract earlier this summer to remain in Tampa Bay through the 2026-2027 season. That’s nine more seasons for Tampa fans to watch a player who’s had an historic start to his career. The next step for him is to secure some hardware. Both individual and team-oriented.
Unfortunately, many of the factors that go into determining who receives hardware are outside of players’ control. Kucherov can’t ensure the Lightning achieves team success on his own. He can’t force the writers to vote for him during award season. For him to have performed at such a high level over the last four years and not have a trophy to show for it is already a run of bad luck.
I want to see that luck turn around this season. I want to see Nikita Kucherov raise a trophy. He is unequivocally one of the best players in the NHL. He’s scored enough to win an Art Ross. He’s been valuable enough to win a Hart. I want this season to be the one where all the pieces come together and he gets the recognition he deserves.