To mark the midpoint of the 2017-18 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.
Martin St. Louis remembers Tampa Bay Lightning right wing Nikita Kucherov as a pass-first player when he broke into the NHL in 2013.
"Probably because he was young and wanted to be nice," St. Louis told NHL.com in October.
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Kucherov still is relatively young at 24 and remains willing to dish the puck when he has to -- he has 32 assists through 42 games -- but adapting to being a shoot-first wing last season has made him one of the elite players in the NHL.
He is NHL.com's leader for the Hart Trophy as League MVP at the halfway point of the season after also being selected as the favorite at the quarter mark.
Kucherov leads the NHL with 59 points, and his 27 goals are tied with Washington Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin for the League lead. He received 13 of the possible 18 first-place votes from the NHL.com panel and was named in the top five on all 18 ballots submitted.
"He's a really, really good kid, and now that he's got his own identity and he's got a little swagger, he's starting to shoot more just to be like, 'Hey, I can do this on my own too,'" said St. Louis, who retired after 16 NHL seasons on July 2, 2015, and is the Lightning's all-time leading scorer (953 points).
Video: TBL@DET: Kucherov buries Stamkos' feed off faceoff
Kucherov, with his shot and ability to find open space, doesn't need too many opportunities to score. He's shooting 18.1 percent this season, tied for third in the League among the 100 players with at least 100 shots on goal.
However, that high of a shooting percentage is not out of the norm for Kucherov, who shot 16.3 percent last season and is shooting 15.8 percent since the start of the 2014-15 season (126 goals on 795 shots).
The difference is his shot volume.
Kucherov is averaging 3.55 shots on goal per game (149 total) and 6.83 shot attempts per game (287 total), according to Corsica.hockey.
He averaged 3.32 shots on goal per game (246 total) and 6.27 shot attempts per game (464 total) in 74 games last season.
Kucherov has 21 games with four or more shots on goal this season, scoring at least once in 14 of those games. He had 30 games with four or more shots on goal last season, including 27 after Lightning center Steven Stamkos' season-ending knee injury.
That Kucherov is looking for his shot more often, and that Stamkos, his linemate, is the one trying to find him, is one of the most important facets of the Lightning's season. It's also a bit of a change from the start of last season.
Kucherov and Stamkos, who was second on the Lightning with 123 shots on goal, played together early last season and combined for 41 points in 16 games (17 goals, 24 assists) before Stamkos was injured.
Kucherov had eight goals, but he was averaging 2.68 shots on goal per game. He scored 32 goals and averaged 3.50 shots on goal per game in 58 games without Stamkos, shooting 15.7 percent.
So, essentially, what Kucherov is doing this season is a continuation of what he did last season, only he's doing it better and is an even more dangerous player, arguably because he and Stamkos are playing to each other's strengths by finding each other but refusing to pass up shooting opportunities.
"We talked to him about this last year, his shot volume," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. "His pucks have eyes, so it becomes just mathematics with him. The more he shoots, the more it's going to go in. Sometimes they're going to overpass, but it comes around because they know when they've overpassed and then they get right back to shooting."
Voting totals (points awarded on a 5-4-3-2-1 basis): Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning, 81 points (13 first-place votes); John Tavares, New York Islanders, 55 (two first-place votes); Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay Lightning, 49 (one first-place vote); Anze Kopitar, Los Angeles Kings, 18; Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals, 16 (one first-place vote); Blake Wheeler, Winnipeg Jets, 12; Drew Doughty, Los Angeles Kings, 12; William Karlsson, Vegas Golden Knights, 5; Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers, 5; Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay Lightning, 5 (one first-place vote); Josh Bailey, New York Islanders, 3; Victor Hedman, Tampa Bay Lightning, 2; Alex Pietrangelo, St. Louis Blues, 2; Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche, 1; Jonathan Quick, Los Angeles Kings, 1; Brayden Schenn, St. Louis Blues, 1; Brock Boeser, Vancouver Canucks, 1; Johnny Gaudreau, Calgary Flames, 1