It’s a new season with new expectations. As has been the case over the last seven or eight seasons, those expectations for the Tampa Bay Lightning have been exceedingly high. In their season preview of the team The Athletic called it “Stanley Cup or bust”. While it might not be quite that severe (more like second round of the playoffs or bust!) the Lightning should be spending most of the regular season somewhere near the top of the standings in the Eastern Conference.
The biggest factor in making sure they reach these lofty goals is undoubtedly (indubitably?) the health of their stars, none more so than Nikita Kucherov. The viciously talented winger is the epicenter of their offense, the straw that stirs the mojito, the head of the table, the conductor, etc., etc. As goes Kucherov, so goes the Lightning.
So, if Kucherov can stay healthy and play in 80-82 games this season, what kind of season can we expect from him? Can he match the heights of his 2018-19 MVP season? Heck, can he better them? Or has the attrition of his teammates over the last few seasons, and the toll of his injuries left his better days behind him?
We should start with what the sharps think. The linesmakers of Vegas (and now several other states) are uncomfortably accurate with the jobs, especially considering how far out in the future they have to sometimes see. Let’s put it this way, if the meteorologist on your nightly news was as accurate as the regular oddsmaker in Vegas, you wouldn’t get caught in a surprise rainstorm without your umbrella.
So where do they have him for the season? As of this writing, our friends over at Draft Kings put him at 97.5 points for the season. You get the same odds if you bet that he scores fewer (the under is -115) or more (the over is also -115). As always, Las Vegas doesn’t care how you bet as long as they get roughly the same amount of bets on both sides of the ledger.
It’s an interesting number considering that 97.5 points breaks down to 1.22 points per game for 80 games played. That number is higher than his career average (1.10 points per game) but well under the 1.38 PPG he’s put up over the last four seasons that he’s played. So Vegas either thinks that the aging curve is going to smack Kuch straight in the stats or that he’s only going to appear in about 70-72 games.
I’m guessing it’s the latter, which, considering how many games the Maykop Maestro has missed over the last two seasons, isn’t a bad bet. Those lower body injuries have a way of sticking around with a player, especially as he ages. It also cuts into the amount of preparation a player can do during the summer. Last season ended with a MCL sprain that he played through in the playoffs. While not the worst injury he’s had over the last three seasons, it’s still one of those nagging injuries that he might be dealing with for the rest of his career.
We’re not here for that kind of pessimistic talk though. We want 80 games from Kuch and we’re going to get them. So let’s talk about that first thing a little bit - the athletic aging curve.
Aging curves are annoying. Mainly because they almost always state that the player you really like - well - he’s past his prime. I know, I know, he’s only 25, he’s still a babe in the woods. Nope, stats say his best years are behind him and you might as well put him out to pasture. Sorry your team just signed him to an 8-year contract!
Again, it’s not so bad. There does seem to be this general sense that when you say a player’s peak performance comes between 23 and 25 years old, that means they fall off a cliff after that. Not so. Pretty much every such chart I’ve ever seen has a player plateauing at 23-25 and then gradually decline over time until their mid-30s.
Point number two, these aging curves are representative of large groups of players. Even the ones that qualify it by looking at only players with large ice time usage are still looking at hundreds of players. There are going to be outliers. Patrick Kane put up 110 points in his 30-year-old season. Sidney Crosby posted 100 points as a 31-year-old. Just because Father Time wins in the end doesn’t mean Kucherov is going to become a 50-point guy just because he turned 29 in June.
So, if he can stay healthy, there is no reason not to think he won’t be up around 100 points this season. If he plays 80 games and averages 1.38 points per game as he has over the last four seasons, then simple math tells us he will be around 110 points (hammer that over 97.5, kids!).
One reason to be high on Kucherov this season is that his usage isn’t really going to change. He’ll be on the top line and top power play unit. His ice time will be around 20 minutes a night as usual. Last season he averaged 19:59 a game, which is a career-high for him. Honestly, he might be a little higher this year if the Lightning are stressing for offense throughout the season.
Could there be a little disruption due to his linemates changing around? Kuch spent a lot of last season (241 minutes) at 5v5 with Brayden Point and Ondrej Palat. As the 2022-23 season dawns it looks like he might not be playing with either. Palat is off in New Jersey and for the short term Coach Cooper has reunited the famed “Wizards of OV” line with Kucherov, Vlad Namestnikov, and Steven Stamkos (Stamkov?).
Granted, just because it’s this way on a Thursday preseason game doesn’t mean it’s going to be that way all season long. Kucherov will take 5v5 shifts with Brayden Point at some point in the season. He’ll probably have Brandon Hagel and Alex Killorn on his lines. Heck, Cole Koepke could be on the opposite side of the ice at some point.
Here’s why that doesn’t matter. Kucherov is the one that drives the offense no matter what line he is on during a game. Last season, when Point and Kucherov were together, Point’s xGF was 51.01%. Without Kuch, Point was at a xGF% of 37.30. Stamkos was at 54.39 xGF% with and 52.80 xGF%. Kuch is going to get his points even if he’s playing with a beer leaguer and a traffic cone.
A final factor that could lead to a big season for Nikita Kucherov is his natural competitiveness. If you don’t think he wants to shove it in the faces of everyone who leaves him out of the “best player in the NHL” conversations every year, well you just haven’t been paying attention over the last few years.
So, my final prediction is that Nikita Kucherov plays in 80 games this season and posts a 112 point season. A solid, but not MVP winning season. He leads the Lightning in points, assists, and power play points.