Nikita Kucherov of the Tampa Bay Lightning has Alex Ovechkin's 65-goal season in his sights.
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The forward has 16 goals in his first 18 games this season, opening the possibility of reaching that total, which no player has since the Washington Capitals forward did it in 2007-08.
Kucherov is on pace for 73 goals in 82 games, which would exceed Ovechkin's output from 2007-08, when he scored the most goals in a single season since Pittsburgh Penguins forward Mario Lemieux had 69 in 70 games in 1995-96. Wayne Gretzky holds the NHL record for most goals in a season; the forward scored 92 for the Edmonton Oilers in 1981-82.
Kucherov's linemate Steven Stamkos is the only other player since Lemieux to score 60 goals in a season, in 2011-12.
Video: TBL@LAK: Kucherov scores beauty on a breakaway
To match Ovechkin's output, Kucherov needs to score 49 goals in the Lightning's remaining 64 games. He has never scored that many in a stretch of 64 consecutive NHL regular-season games. In his past 64 games, he has scored 43 goals, the most prolific output of his career.
There are several reasons to believe Kucherov's chances of scoring 49 goals in 64 games are far better now.
He's at his peak scoring age (24), League scoring levels are higher than they were in previous seasons, and he's enjoying favorable, offensive-minded deployment on Tampa Bay's top line with Stamkos. Each of these factors could boost his chances.
Age is a key factor, and in Kucherov's case it means he has greater chances of scoring 49 goals than in the past. His goal-scoring rate has steadily increased from 0.17 goals per game at age 20 in his rookie season in 2013-14. It was 0.35 in 2014-15, 0.39 the following season and 0.54 last season. This season, Kucherov's rate is 0.89.
The average goal-scoring rate improves by about five percent per season from age 20 to a peak reached and sustained between age 23 and 25, according to a study of scoring rates among forwards starting with the 1967-68 season. This is mainly due to developing skills and additional ice time.
Video: TBL@SJS: Kucherov picks corner with scorching wrister
Kucherov's goal-scoring rate could be boosted even more because of increased scoring levels across the League. For the past four seasons, the average number of goals scored per game was between 2.71 and 2.77. The average this season entering Wednesday was 3.03, which is about 10 percent more.
Favorable deployment could be the critical boosting factor. Kucherov plays primarily in the offensive zone, with top linemates, and with relatively fewer defensive responsibilities against top opponents. In 2017-18, Kucherov has started 110 shifts in the offensive zone and 67 in the defensive zone, for a zone-start percentage of 62.15, highest among Tampa Bay forwards.
The most important aspect of Kucherov's deployment is playing with Stamkos on a regular basis. The impact of linemates has already been noticeable in Kucherov's career. In his rookie season (2013-14), he played with J.T. Brown and Nate Thompson, who have NHL career averages of 0.22 and 0.21 points per game, respectively. Kucherov scored nine goals in 52 games. Starting in 2014-15, he was part of "The Triplets" with Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat, who have career averages of 0.67 and 0.70 points per game; he improved to 29 goals in 82 games.
This season, he has been playing with Stamkos, who has a career average of 1.01 points per game, which could help boost Kucherov's scoring rate even higher.
It's a long shot for any player to score 65 goals in a season again. However, Kucherov's hot start puts this possibility on the table in 2017-18, when he is at his peak, playing with Stamkos and scoring levels are higher across the League.