To mark the conclusion of the 2018-19 regular season, NHL.com is running its fifth installment of the Trophy Tracker series this week. Today, we look at the race for the Hart Trophy, the award given annually to the player deemed to be most valuable to his team, as selected in a Professional Hockey Writers Association poll.
The choice is so obvious to Steven Stamkos that it doesn't require much thinking at all.
Tampa Bay Lightning forward Nikita Kucherov is the favorite for the Hart Trophy. Is there another option?
"He'd get my vote," Stamkos, the Lightning captain, said. "It's been a big offensive year for a lot of players in the League, and look how he's separated himself. Plus, I know what he means to this team every night."
Stamkos isn't alone in his thinking; the NHL.com staff gave 20 of 21 first-place votes to Kucherov. Washington Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin got the other one.
Kucherov won the Art Ross Trophy by leading the NHL with 128 points (41 goals, 87 assists). It's the most points by a Russia-born NHL player, breaking Alexander Mogilny's single-season record of 127 set in 1992-93 with the Buffalo Sabres, and the most points by any NHL player since 1995-96, when Mario Lemieux of the Pittsburgh Penguins had 161 and teammate Jaromir Jagr had 149. Kucherov also set Lightning records for assists and points in a season.
Kucherov took the lead in the NHL scoring race Dec. 27, when he had four points (one goal, three assists) in a 6-5 overtime win against the Philadelphia Flyers, and never relinquished it.
He would be the second Lightning player to win the Hart Trophy, joining forward Martin St. Louis, who won it in 2003-04, when Tampa Bay won the Stanley Cup.
"It has to be [Kucherov] in my mind," Lightning defenseman Ryan McDonagh said. "You talk about our overall team success and our record, he's been the engine for us."
The Lightning tied the NHL record for wins in a season with 62, equaling the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings, and finished with the fourth-most points in NHL history (128). Kucherov played all 82 games and had a point in 62, including 38 games when he had at least two points.
Tampa Bay went 54-5-3 when he had a point and 8-11-1 when he didn't.
"You look at the games where we didn't play well and [Kucherov] didn't find himself on the score sheet, a lot of the times it was the guys he's setting up that didn't finish off for him." McDonagh said. "He's been a driving force for us on both sides of the puck too, playing well without the puck and allowing himself to get in those positions. It doesn't happen just out of coincidence. He gets back and supports us when the other team is coming down on the break."
Voting totals (points awarded on a 5-4-3-2-1 basis): Nikita Kucherov, Lightning, 103 points (20 first-place votes); Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins, 44 points; Johnny Gaudreau, Calgary Flames, 41 points; Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers, 29 points; Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks, 27 points; Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals, 22 points (one first-place vote); Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche, 16 points; Sebastian Aho, Carolina Hurricanes, eight points; Patrice Bergeron, Boston Bruins, seven points; Jordan Binnington, St. Louis Blues, seven points; Mark Giordano, Calgary Flames, four points; Brad Marchand, Bruins, three points; Aleksander Barkov, Florida Panthers, two points; Blake Wheeler, Winnipeg Jets, one point; Ryan O'Reilly, Blues, one point
NHL.com staff writer Mike Zeisberger contributed to this story