To mark the completion of the first quarter of the season, which arrived Tuesday, NHL.com is running its second installment of the Trophy Tracker series this week. Today, we look at the race for the Hart Trophy.
Tampa Bay Lightning forward Nikita Kucherov is a rink rat who'd prefer to work in the shadows of teammates Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman.
"It's good for me if I don't have to say anything [to the media]," Kucherov told NHL.com prior to the start of the season. "It's good to have those guys in the room."
Stamkos and Hedman can't cast a shadow long enough to cover Kucherov this season. They can't shield him from the cameras, from the spotlight, the accolades and the adulation. Kucherov's 70-goal pace 20 games into the season doesn't allow him to lie in the weeds anymore.
Video: DAL@TBL: Kucherov finishes off attack with tap in
Kucherov is NHL.com's favorite to win the Hart Trophy through the first quarter of the season. He is first in the League with 17 goals and second in points with 33, three behind Stamkos. Each has played 21 games.
"Now, the hockey world is seeing we have a star," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said.
Kucherov showed the hockey world his star power last season, when he had 85 points, including 40 goals, in 74 games. Those numbers felt even more impactful to the Lightning because he put them up despite not having regular linemates because of injuries.
Kucherov and Stamkos combined for 41 points in the first 17 games last season, but a knee injury took Stamkos out for the final 65 games. The Lightning missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs by one point; hardly Kucherov's fault.
Stamkos is healthy again and, with Vladislav Namestnikov (nine goals, 12 assists) on the left wing of the Lightning's top line, they've rediscovered the chemistry they had early last season.
Stamkos finished second in NHL.com's Hart Trophy vote through the first quarter. They're in line to be the first teammates to be finalists for the Hart since Jaromir Jagr and Mario Lemieux (Pittsburgh Penguins) finished second and third, respectively, in 2000-01.
"Obviously, they've picked up with the chemistry they had when they played last year for those first few games," Cooper said. "Probably most importantly, though, [Kucherov] really, almost methodically, works at his game. Whether it's his release, his one-timer, his change in direction while moving and shooting, he constantly is doing that."
That's the rink rat element that has been so important to Kucherov's growth from a 30-goal scorer two seasons ago to a 40-goal scorer last season to a potential 70-goal scorer this season.
Video: TBL@LAK: Kucherov scores beauty on a breakaway
"When he shows up in Tampa, Florida, in July, when it's 100 percent humidity and nobody is here, and he's renting out the ice himself to work on his game," Cooper said, "I see how his production totals have gone up."
Work ethic on the ice is also a key factor. It's not as if Kucherov is standing around and waiting for Stamkos to set him up, or waiting to set up Stamkos.
Kucherov's vision and intelligence, Cooper said, are significant and underrated parts of his game.
"He sees what's going to happen next in the game before the player he's going against sees it," Cooper said. "It's impressive. Like, he's such a sneaky little forechecker because he knows what the defender is going to do before the defender knows what he's going to do. That's why he often comes away with pucks, because he's so good at that."
Kucherov has been so good at everything this season, bringing the spotlight on himself, even if he'd prefer the coverage of the shadows.
"People talking, like 'He's a star,' or something like that, I'm not putting that in my head and thinking about it," Kucherov said. "If I do, my game is going to go a different way. I just focus on my game. We're here for one reason, to make the playoffs and win the Cup."
Voting totals (points awarded on a 5-4-3-2-1 basis): Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning, 83 points (13 first-place votes); Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay Lightning, 56 points (five first-place votes), Vladimir Tarasenko, St. Louis Blues, 20; Anze Kopitar, Los Angeles Kings, 16; Mark Scheifele, Winnipeg Jets, 15; John Tavares, New York Islanders, 13; Alex Pietrangelo, St. Louis Blues, 12; Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers, 11; Blake Wheeler, Winnipeg Jets, 9; Drew Doughty, Los Angeles Kings, 4; Mark Stone, Ottawa Senators, 4; Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs, 4; Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals; 3; Johnny Gaudreau, Calgary Flames, 3; Erik Karlsson, Ottawa Senators, 3; Jaden Schwartz, St. Louis Blues, 3; Corey Crawford, Chicago Blackhawks, 3; Sergei Bobrovsky, Columbus Blue Jackets, 2; James Neal, Vegas Golden Knights, 2; Roman Josi, Nashville Predators, 2; Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay Lightning, 1