To mark the three-quarters point of the 2017-18 season, NHL.com is running its fourth installment of the Trophy Tracker series this week. Today, we look at the race for the Hart Trophy.
The mark of a good player is consistency in all areas. The mark of an elite player is consistency in all areas while also consistently being at or near the top of the scoring leaders.
Tampa Bay Lightning right wing Nikita Kucherov is an elite player. There's no reason to even try to debate that point now, especially considering Kucherov has been the NHL's leading scorer for 79 consecutive days and counting.
Kucherov has 82 points (33 goals, 49 assists) in 63 games.
A panel of 19 NHL.com staff members voted for the winners of each major award after the third quarter of the season. Kucherov finished with 77 points and 13 first-place votes to lead all contenders for the Hart Trophy, given to the NHL's most valuable player.
Video: TBL@MTL: Kucherov scorches one-time PPG past Niemi
"His game has improved all the way around," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. "His in-tight plays are pretty remarkable and making those high-skilled plays at such a high speed is what sets him apart. He knows what the defense is going to do before they know what they are going to do and that's a hockey sense thing that a lot of guys just don't have. His plays under pressure and those tight ones have really improved."
Kucherov took over as the NHL scoring leader Dec. 14, when he had a goal and an assist in a 4-1 win at the Arizona Coyotes. That gave him 44 points (22 goals, 22 assists) in 31 games, one more than teammate Steven Stamkos in the same amount of games. Since then, Kucherov has 38 points (11 goals, 27 assists) in 32 games.
He has established an NHL career high in assists and is three points from matching his high of 85 points, which he had in 74 games last season. He needs seven goals to match his high of 40, which he also had last season.
Kucherov was able to hold the points lead through a scoring slump. He didn't score on 30 shots across 11 games from Jan. 9-Feb. 5. He had seven assists in that span, but his scoring lead, which was seven points entering play Jan. 9, dropped to three after the games were over Feb. 5. He's built his lead back up to six points over Pittsburgh Penguins center Evgeni Malkin with 16 points (six goals, 10 assists) in the past 10 games. He scored six goals on 48 shots in nine games from Feb. 8-24.
Video: Kucherov adds to his list of wonderful no-shot goals
Kucherov sustained an upper-body injury in the first period of a 4-3 shootout win against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Monday and didn't play the final 50:21, including overtime.
"Look at his shot numbers and there's a correlation when shooting the puck and getting attempts eventually points will follow and goals will follow," Cooper said. "That's a big thing for him: Shoot the puck. And that's what he's good at. When he's overpassing, sometimes that can be a little bit of a confidence issue. But I just love when I look and I see that, holy cow, he's got 11, 12, 13 shot attempts. You know good things are going to happen."
Voting totals (points awarded on a 5-4-3-2-1 basis): Nikita Kucherov, Lightning, 77 points (13 first-place votes); Patrice Bergeron, Boston Bruins, 29 (two first-place votes); Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh Penguins, 27 (two first-place votes); Blake Wheeler, Winnipeg Jets, 27; Taylor Hall, New Jersey Devils, 25 (one first-place vote); Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche, 22; Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals, 19 (one first-place vote); Claude Giroux, Philadelphia Flyers, 10; Johnny Gaudreau, Calgary Flames, 10; Steven Stamkos, Lightning, 9; Sidney Crosby, Penguins, 6; Drew Doughty, Los Angeles Kings, 5; John Tavares, New York Islanders, 5; P.K. Subban, Nashville Predators, 3; William Karlsson, Vegas Golden Knights, 2; Vladimir Tarasenko, St. Louis Blues, 2; Andrei Vasilevskiy, Lightning, 1; Anze Kopitar, Kings, 1; Victor Hedman, Lightning, 1; Mark Scheifele, Jets, 1; Connor Hellebuyck, Jets, 1; Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers, 1; Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs, 1