What Made Him an All Star: Nikita Kucherov’s Dominant Performance

The last time an NHL player finished the season with over 120 points was in 2005-06 when Joe Thornton ended with 125. Since the 2004-05 lockout, the Art Ross winner has typically put up a little over 100 points, except during the 2012-13 lock out shortened year and Jamie Benn’s league leading 87 points in 2014-15. This season could very easily be the first time someone ends with 130+ points since before the turn of the century; after 49 games Nikita Kucherov leads the league in scoring with an insane 78 points, putting him on pace to finish with 130 points in 82 games. If Kucherov is able to keep up his current pace, he will be the first player to eclipse 130 points in a season since Mario Lemieux’s 161 point year in 1995-96. (It’s worth noting that the league average SV% that season was .898 and this year it’s .908)

Kucherov leads the NHL in points (78) and assists (56) along with being third on the Lightning for goals with 22. In second place for points is Johnny Gaudreau with 73 in 50 games, one more than Kucherov has played so far. Barring injury, Kucherov should finish the season with the most points in the league.

These basic counting statistics are great for a general overview of performance and are often what is most heavily focused. I wanted to understand Nikita Kucherov’s play better, so I went to two of my favorite places on the internet— evolving-hockey.com and corsica.hockey— to help quantify Kucherov’s performance.

Even Strength

At even strength Kucherov has 45 assists (34 primary) this season, tied for first in the league with Johnny Gaudreau. Whilst he has been able to score plenty individually this season (13 EV goals), he been a better playmaker and has driven much of Tampa Bay’s offensive success.

It is fairly simple and easy to understand Kucherov’s dominance this season by comparing the assists/60 and goals/60 of players throughout the league to his. Kucherov’s has 2.59 A/60 and 1.05 G/60 at even strength. That is the highest A/60 in the league and his 1.05 G/60 is also quite impressive.

His offensive production has been aided by large amounts of ice time. He has played an average of 15.15 minutes at even strength a game, most out of all Lightning forwards. But even when taking ice time into account, Kucherov’s numbers are equally impressive; he leads the NHL in points/60 at even strength with 3.64.

Power Play

Kucherov’s power play performance is arguably even more impressive than his at even strength. Not only is he a dynamic playmaker on the power play, but he is also a major goal scoring threat. He leads the NHL with 29 in 49 games, putting him on a pace for 48 points on the power play alone by the end of season (if he plays all 82 games.)

Kucherov has 6.65 A/60 and 2.99 G/60 on the power play this season. His assist rate is the highest in the league and his goal rate is comparable to John Tavares (3.02), Jake Debrusk (3.03), Joe Pavelski (3.06), and Zach Parise (2.82).

I like using graphs and charts to help visualize and understand statistics by creating comparisons to other players. But I could not find anything comparing A/60 and G/60 rates. So I made a graph based on Sean Tierney’s scoring rate breakdown, but for the power play. I took the top 20 forwards in power play points and compared their G/60 to their A/60 to see how Kucherov compares to the best power play performers in the league.

Kucherov is still more of play maker than a goal scorer on the power play, but his one timer from the right circle makes him a scoring threat as well. He has 9 power play goals this season, tying him with Matthew Tkachuk for 10th most.

Hart Trophy?

Nikita Kucherov is an elite player and is having an outstanding season. He is the clear cut favorite for the Art Ross and no one would be surprised if he won it. So why do people hesitate to put him in consideration for the Hart Trophy?

The Hart Trophy is given to “the player adjudged to be the most valuable to his team.” Members of the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association vote on the award and in recent years the unspoken criteria surrounding it has increased. It has become the award given to the best player on a team that barely makes the playoffs, excluding members from teams that miss the playoff and those who finish high in the standings. (Remember Hall, Mackinnon, Kopitar, and their teams last year?)

Kucherov is the best player on the best team in the league, and is an integral part of the Lighting’s success this season. But, with talented players like Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point, and Victor Hedman making up Tampa Bay’s roster, it is hard to evaluate how much of Kucherov’s success is his own and how much is a result of playing with talented teammates.

This is why I looked at shot rates with and without Kucherov on the ice as a way to compare how the Lightning’s offensive play is affected by him. Although Tampa Bay is dominant offensively regardless of personnel on the ice, Kucherov’s presence makes the Lightning even more dangerous. When Kucherov is on the ice at even strength, Tampa Bay’s shot rates and the area at which high amounts of shots are generated increases compared to when he is on the bench. The team takes more a couple feet away from the front of the net. With more shots and higher quality shots being taken when Kucherov is on the ice, his presence benefits the Tampa Bay Lightning’s offense.

He has also been an incredibly important part of Tampa Bay’s successful power play. Right now, the team’s power play has a 29.5% success rate, over four percent higher than the Colorado Avalanche who are second in power play percentage. He’s on the ice for 71% of Tampa Bay’s power play minutes, and the team is considerably better at generating high danger shots when he is on the ice.

Shots taken close to the net (which are more likely to go in) increase when Kucherov is playing. More shots are taken from the left circle and the area that shots are taken from in the center and right side of the ice increases.

Part of that is talent Tampa Bay has on its first power play unit. An elite shooter like Steven Stamkos is going to increase amount of shots taken. But Kucherov’s play making ability is critical in creating opportunities for Stamkos and Brayden Point.

Liz named Nikita Kucherov as her Hart trophy winner in her NHL Midseason Award Winners article, and I completely agree. The NHL Awards are a surface level assessment of talent and with a little more research, the Hart trophy, along with other awards, would be more accurately distributed and be a better representation of the talent in the National Hockey League.

Header image from nhl.com

Mara Bowden

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