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Nikita Kucherov’s first five seasons put his early career among the best in NHL history

On Tuesday, the Tampa Bay Lightning caught everyone by surprise by announcing an extension for franchise player Nikita Kucherov, one that will pay $9.5 million per year over the next 8 seasons. The deal will keep the electric winger in Tampa through the spring of 2027. The response from the fan base was understandably joyous.

Nikita Kucherov is great. He was in the Hart trophy conversation this year. He should have been in it last year too but the Lightning’s disappointing season kept him from being a serious candidate. We could run through a litany of stats to establish his greatness: he scored 100 points this season; he’s been an elite play driver in both shots and expected goals during his career in Tampa.

Using Corsica’s Wins Above Replacement, we can establish that Kucherov has been the second-best skater in the NHL over the last three seasons behind Connor McDavid. This indicates that Kuch’s combination of play driving and scoring make him one of the very best players in the NHL. He makes most of his impact on offense but his defensive impacts are positive as well. He’s an all-around contributor who makes the team better in every way.

We know this. We’ve been known this. Nikita Kucherov is one of the best players in the NHL,  period.

But what about compared to players from hockey past? Kucherov is only twenty-five years old so we’re still early in his career. He’s played five seasons with the Lightning. But those five seasons have been so impressive that I couldn’t help wondering how they compare to the first five seasons of other players historically.

Unfortunately, the NHL has rough data prior to 2007. Unlike baseball, which has robust statistics going back to its earliest years, hockey is plagued by limited data. The best historic stat we have is point shares from Hockey Reference. Point shares is a stat that attempts to measure how many standings points a player contributed using the limited available data. Given the circumstances, it does well.

The following is a chart that shows the trend of Kucherov’s first five seasons of point shares compared to every other NHL player going back to 1918 who played at least 100 games in their first five seasons. Lightning players are highlighted in blue and some important names are labeled for reference.

In the first several paragraphs, we established that Kucherov is comfortably among the best players in the NHL. Now, we’re seeing some evidence that his first five seasons put him among some of the best players in history. Let’s start by qualifying this statement: The NHL’s history is littered with players who had great starts to their careers but couldn’t sustain it. Injuries are typically the reason. Lightning fans know all about this from watching Steven Stamkos. A strong start doesn’t guarantee anything long term.

With the qualifiers out of the way, let me just say: wow. Like for real, wow. Kucherov’s first five years put him 29th in NHL history in terms of point shares. That’s in the top one percent of all qualifying players. Objectively, to the best degree we can measure, Kuch is off to a start that puts him among the greats. If he keeps up this pace, his competition will shift from his contemporaries to the legends of the game.

During the season, we focus on minutia. We hone in on the little picture and dissect every bit of information we can find. We yell about things we won’t even remember two weeks later. But this is a moment where we can take a step back and appreciate the player that Nikita Kucherov is. And we can appreciate that if all goes well, we will get to watch him play hundreds and hundreds more hockey games over the next nine seasons.

We’ll get to watch Kucherov set up in the right circle with his stick in the air waiting to ruin a goalie’s life. We’ll get to watch him slide passes that shouldn’t be possible through the slot to the back post for tap-in goals. We’ll get to watch him find his trailing teammates on the rush by feel without ever looking back to see where they are. And we’ll get to see the pure competitive emotion that explodes from his soul and fills the entire arena when he scores a clutch goal.

Players like Nikita Kucherov are rare. The Lightning have been lucky to have a few superstar forwards over the years: Marty, Vinny, Stammer. Kuch looks poised to join that group. So before the season comes round again, we should take a moment. Step back. Think about what he’s already accomplished in his first five years. Think about everything that could be still to come. And appreciate it. Because if we’re lucky, we could be watching the prime of a player whose 86 will hang in the rafters some day.

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