To mark the midway point of the season, NHL.com is running its third installment of the Trophy Tracker series this week. Today, we look at the race for the Hart Trophy, given annually to the player in the NHL judged to be most valuable to his team as selected in a Professional Hockey Writers Association poll.
Jon Cooper required one word to describe Nikita Kucherov this season.
"Brilliant," the Tampa Bay Lightning coach said.
A follow-up question wasn't necessary. Cooper didn't have to say much more about Kucherov, Tampa Bay's all-star right wing who leads the NHL with 71 points (20 goals, 51 assists) and is the leader for the Hart Trophy at the midway point of the season according to a panel of 20 NHL.com writers. Kucherov received 68 points (eight first-place votes), 10 more than Nathan MacKinnon of the Colorado Avalanche (four first-place votes). Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers is third with 44 points (four first-place votes).
Kucherov, whose 51 assists lead the NHL, has been on a tear since mid-November. He has 54 points (14 goals, 40 assists) in 26 games since Nov. 15, helping the Lightning go 22-3-1. He has at least one point in 24 of the 26 games and at least two in 17, including a stretch of seven straight multipoint games from Dec. 18-Jan. 3.
Video: Kucherov records his 50th assist and 70th point
"He's been nothing short of phenomenal," Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman said. "He's been unbelievable in every game. He's obviously contributing offensively, but I think his work all over the ice has been terrific. It's not a fluke that he went on the streak he did. It's not just the skill set he has but it's the work ethic he has as well.
"You watch practices and who's the last guy out there working on stuff? It's him. He always wants to get better. He wants to be the best in the League and right now I don't think there is a player better."
Kucherov has been so good he's accomplishing things previously done by the likes of only Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr and Ron Francis.
Kucherov got to 70 points in 43 games, the quickest of any player in Lightning history and the first player to get there in his team's first 43 games since Jagr did it in 39 games with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1999-2000.
Kucherov, with his assist in a 4-0 win against the Columbus Blue Jackets on Tuesday, became the 10th player in NHL history to reach 50 assists within his team's first 43 games and the first since Gretzky, Lemieux, Jagr and Francis did it in 1995-96.
The other players to do that were Bobby Orr, Denis Savard, Marcel Dionne, Pat LaFontaine and John Cullen.
The rest of the NHL has taken notice.
"He's got everything," Washington Capitals center Evgeny Kuznetsov said of Kucherov. "He can skate. He can play one on one. At the same time, he's always hungry for the goals. He wants to score the goals. … That's probably what makes him better than some other top guys because he can do whatever he wants on the ice."
Especially lately, said Boston Bruins center Patrice Bergeron.
"It's kind of insane right now," he said.
Voting totals (points awarded on a 5-4-3-2-1 basis): Nikita Kucherov, Lightning, 68 points (eight first-place votes); Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche, 58 points (four first-place votes); Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers, 44 points (four first-place votes); Mikko Rantanen, Avalanche, 34 points (three first-place votes); Johnny Gaudreau, Calgary Flames, 29; Jack Eichel, Buffalo Sabres, 15; Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals, 11; Marc-Andre Fleury, Vegas Golden Knights, 11 (one first-place vote); David Pastrnak, Bruins, seven; Andrei Vasilevskiy, Lightning, four; John Gibson, Anaheim Ducks, four; Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins, three; Jeff Skinner, Sabres, three; Mark Scheifele, Winnipeg Jets, two; Blake Wheeler, Jets; two; John Tavares, Toronto Maple Leafs, two; Mark Giordano, Flames, one; Morgan Rielly, Maple Leafs, one; Patrice Bergeron, Bruins, one
NHL.com staff writers Tom Gulitti and Amalie Benjamin and NHL.com correspondent Corey Long contributed to this story