To mark the three-quarters point in the 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 annual award given to the player judged most valuable to his team as selected in a Professional Hockey Writers Association poll.
Nikita Kucherov can do something this season that nobody else has done in recent NHL history.
The Tampa Bay Lightning forward has 104 points (30 goals, 74 assists) through 65 games, putting him on pace for 131 this season, which would make him the first player to score at least 130 points in the salary cap era (since the 2005-06 season). It would also make him the first NHL player to get to 130 points since Mario Lemieux (161) and Jaromir Jagr (149) did it with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1995-96.
Joe Thornton holds the cap-era record for points in a season with 125 in 2005-06, when he played for the Boston Bruins and San Jose Sharks. Jagr had 123 that season with the New York Rangers.
Since then, nobody has topped Sidney Crosby's 120 points in 2006-07 and 14 other times has a player finished a season with more points than the 104 Kucherov already has.
Kucherov's production, which has directly helped the Lightning to an NHL-best 102 points, is why a panel of 21 NHL.com writers and editors voted him as the Hart Trophy favorite at the three-quarters point of the season. Kucherov earned 95 points from the NHL.com panel, 25 more than Calgary Flames forward Johnny Gaudreau. Chicago Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane was third with 61 points.
Kucherov was named on 20 ballots and received 16 first-place votes.
Video: BUF@TBL: Kucherov reaches the century mark in points
"We have a good team, but he's been spectacular for us," Lightning center Brayden Point said. "We're not the same team without him, for sure."
Kucherov has already eclipsed his previous NHL career highs in assists (61) and points (100). His 74 assists are already a single-season Lightning record, and he is all but guaranteed, provided he stays healthy, to set the Tampa Bay record for points in a season (108), held by Vincent Lecavalier from the 2006-07 season.
"Do I believe he is one of the best, if not the best player on the planet right now? I truly do believe that," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. "But I think there are a handful of players in this league that can be talked about in that breath. That's why debates are made, because people can all debate for their guys. But I always say this, how many guys in this league can pull people out of their seats when they play aside from getting in a fight? [Kucherov] is one of those players. That's why he's magical and getting better every year."
Kucherov has been doing that since he established himself as an NHL player with 65 points (29 goals, 36 assists) in 2014-15. The difference in him this season, his teammates say, is his maturity. He hasn't slammed as many water bottles on the bench or broken as many sticks over the crossbar.
"You sometimes see that frustration creep out, but then you see him collect himself and he goes out and he helps the team to win," Lightning defenseman Anton Stralman said.
Video: TBL@CBJ: Kucherov goes five-hole for second goal
Kucherov has had at least one point in 49 of Tampa Bay's 65 games. He hasn't gone more than two games in a row without a point, and he's only done that three times. He has had separate point streaks of five, seven, 10 and 12 games.
The Lightning are 42-4-3 when Kucherov scored at least one point; they are 7-8-1 when he didn't.
"Before this season there was a lot of frustration involved," Stralman said. "Now, this season, I mean, it's hard to be frustrated."
Voting totals (points awarded on a 5-4-3-2-1 basis): Nikita Kucherov, Lightning, 95 points (16 first-place votes); Johnny Gaudreau, Calgary Flames, 70 points (one first-place vote); Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks, 61 points (four first-place votes); Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers, 25 points; Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins, 19 points; Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals, 15 points; Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche, 8 points; Mikko Rantanen, Avalanche, 4 points; Mark Scheifele, Winnipeg Jets, 3 points; Patrice Bergeron, Boston Bruins, 3 points; Blake Wheeler, Jets, 3 points; John Tavares, Toronto Maple Leafs, 3 points; Artemi Panarin, Columbus Blue Jackets, 2 points; Vladimir Tarasenko, St. Louis Blues, 2 points; Brad Marchand, Bruins, 1 point; Mitchell Marner, Maple Leafs, 1 point