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2018-2019 Player Grades: Nikita Kucherov had an offensive explosion that we likely won’t see again

Nikita Kucherov had the highest scoring season of the salary cap era and he’s only 25 years old.

NHL: Boston Bruins at Tampa Bay Lightning Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Tampa Bay Lightning season is over. With a long summer ahead of us, we’re going to hand out grades to each player on the roster. You did your part submitting your grades via the reader survey, and they are presented along with our writers’ grades. All told, about 360 of you submitted grades, which is less than last season, but that’s understandable considering how the season went. Follow along with the series through the month of May and share your thoughts in the comments.

It’s difficult to put into words what Nikita Kucherov did this season. In laymen’s terms, Kucherov lit the NHL on fire offensively. His 128-point campaign achieved the following distinctions: highest of the salary cap era passing Joe Thornton’s 125 points in 2005-2006, the first 120+ point campaign since Sidney Crosby’s 120-point year in 2007, the highest single season point total in Tampa Bay Lightning history, the first Lightning player in franchise history with back-to-back 100-point seasons, and the Lightning single season record for assists (87). What we witnessed was an offensive explosion that no player has achieved in the salary cap era.

This season was special for Kucherov and Tampa Bay, both achieved records and had the entire NHL in awe at what was transpiring—it’s what makes the embarrassing playoff exit even more painful for the Lightning faithful. However, this piece is designed to dig into Kucherov’s season and see where he was good and bad.

Nikita Kucherov, 2018-2019 5v5 Shot Rates For/Against
Micah Blake McCurdy, @IneffectiveMath,

I believe the illustration above explains everything that needs to be said about Kucherov in the offensive zone. Conversely, Kucherov’s defensive impact was surprisingly poor this season. You’d expect the defensive impact to not be as good as his offensive side, but the stark difference between the two is startling. Especially for a player like Kucherov who showcased a good two-way game earlier in his career. This could be due to a mindset shift in Kucherov to focus his efforts in the offensive zone or, to plainly put it, he was simply not good his own end this season.

Nikita Kucherov, RAPM Charts 2019, 2018, 2017
Evolving Hockey, @EvolvingWild,

When we take a look at his three most recent seasons we can see a noticeable drop in his defensive impact. Last season was the first one that saw his defensive performance stray into the negative while this season saw it take a nosedive into a territory you never want to see a player in. Obviously, he compensates for this inefficiency with the absurd offensive impact, but it’s something that could become an issue as he ages and his offensive skills naturally regress.

It is interesting to see his xG impact staying roughly the same from the previous two seasons, yet his actual production increased. This can probably be linked to the fact that he was almost exclusively paired with Brayden Point and Tyler Johnson this season. The Point line was one of the most offensively dominant lines in the NHL , with Kucherov and Point both driving it at different times. Johnson happened to be the lucky benefactor on the line, but his chemistry with them was evident throughout the season.

Additionally, Kucherov’s impact on the power-play was otherworldly. With Steven Stamkos on the opposite wing, Victor Hedman manning the point, and Brayden Point controlling the slot, the Lightning went on to scorch teams with the man advantage. This was entirely due to Kucherov’s ability to find passing lanes and deceive defenders with his shot. Yes, there were nights where the passing wasn’t on point for Kucherov, but more times than not he was making extraordinary plays to set up his teammates.

It should also be noted that Tampa Bay’s shooting locations on the power-play weren’t optimal. They designed their power-play to operate at the faceoff circles specifically for Kucherov’s passing ability and Stamkos’ one-timer. Add Kucherov’s deceptive shot, Point’s quick release in the slot, and the philosophy of moving the opposing goaltender from side to side and it’s easy to understand why Tampa Bay’s power-play operated at such a high level this season.

As for the other metrics, at 5v5 Kucherov, controlled 53% of the shot attempts and generated an xGF% of 52%. Not as one sided as you’d expect for a player who scored 128 points and 40 goals. Which leads me to believe that Kucherov is unlikely to replicate this moving forward. Sure, he might hit 100 points again, but another 120+ campaign would be surprising. It’d be more realistic to expect him to score anywhere between 80-100 points next season, unless Tampa Bay’s offensive system continues to run rough-shod over the league (unlikely).

With that in mind, it’s important to realize how special Kucherov’s season was. It’s possible that we might not see another 120+ campaign for several years, a lot of things have to break right in today’s NHL for it to happen. Hopefully, the overall increased scoring throughout the league will have more 100 point players in the future, but I have a nagging feeling coaches are going to find a way to clamp things down. I hope I’m wrong though.

As for grades, I gave Kucherov an A+ with no hesitation about it. Even with his poor defensive impact, the sheer offensive onslaught he put on display was something we will always remember. Now, he, like many others, performed poorly in the postseason which ultimately led to their elimination. Kucherov does deserve more ire due to his Game 3 suspension thanks to his needless and idiotic hit in Game 2, but as I alluded to in the Stamkos piece, hyper-focusing on just the post-season when evaluating a player is flawed logic.

Moving forward, Kucherov’s extension kicks in this upcoming season and the cap crunch will be in full effect with Point’s contract looming and questions about who will fill the holes on defense with three unrestricted free agents leaving. Julien BriseBois is going to have to move some bodies. This is without any of the Erik Karlsson speculation being thought of either.

Kucherov’s production shouldn’t be a cause for concern over the next few years, but Tampa Bay’s ability to be a top contender might be. The contracts to players like Alex Killorn, Ondrej Palat, J.T. Miller, Tyler Johnson, and Yanni Gourde are going to be difficult to deal with as the big money contracts of Victor Hedman, Steven Stamkos, Kucherov, and Point go into effect. At this point though, the only thing we can do is wait and see what BriseBois does to keep the Lightning in their contention window.