Case for, against Lightning’s Nikita Kucherov winning the Hart Trophy

TAMPA — After leading the NHL in points and recording the best scoring season in Lightning history, Nikita Kucherov on Tuesday was named a finalist for the Hart Memorial Trophy, the annual award given to the player “adjudged to be most valuable to his team.”

The three finalists came as no surprise: Kucherov, Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon and Edmonton’s Connor McDavid.

Kucherov led the league in scoring with 144 points, second-most in a season since 1995-96. Kucherov and McDavid shared the assists lead with 100. Only five players in league history (Kucherov, McDavid, Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and Bobby Orr) have recorded triple-digit assists in a season.

If Kucherov does win the Hart, he will become just the 20th player in league history — and only the fourth active player (joining McDavid, Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby) — to receive the award multiple times. He first won the Hart after the 2018-19 season.

The Hart winner is voted on by select members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association and is based on regular-season performance. The winner will be announced at the NHL Awards ceremony on June 27 in Las Vegas.

Why Kucherov will win the Hart

• Statistically, Kucherov had one of the best individual performances in recent league history. Only two other players have recorded 40-goal, 100-assist seasons: Gretzky and Lemieux. Kucherov’s was the first since 1990-91, so he has reached a milestone that no other player has in 33 seasons.

• Based on the criteria for the Hart, which technically isn’t the league MVP but the player most valuable to his team, Kucherov carried a Lightning roster depleted by the salary cap to its seventh straight postseason. He scored 15 (34%) of his 44 goals during a 20-game stretch to open the season when goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy was out. And from the midpoint of the season, when the Lightning were in danger of missing the playoffs, Kucherov propelled them to the postseason with 77 points (including 61 assists) in 41 second-half games.

• Among the three players with 40-goal, 100-assist seasons, Kucherov is the only non-centerman to do it. His ability to make plays from the wing position is unprecedented. Kucherov played a role in nearly half (49.485%) of the Lightning’s goals, and his point total was 54 points higher than Tampa Bay’s next highest scorer (Brayden Point, with 90). Plus, Kucherov owned at least a share of the league scoring lead for 129 days, 97 more than any other skater.

Why Kucherov won’t win the Hart

• While Kucherov’s overall numbers stand out from the rest historically, we are back in an era of offense. So, does that take away from the value of Kucherov edging MacKinnon for the scoring title? MacKinnon had 140 points and McDavid 132. A decade ago, there might have been one or two players with 100-point seasons. This season, there were nine. The point totals of Kucherov, MacKinnon and McDavid ranked as the second-, third- and fourth-best single-season offensive performances of the past 28 years. So, could the fact that MacKinnon had more goals, even-strength goals and even-strength points make a difference? Also, the Lightning had fewer points (98) than both MacKinnon’s Avalanche (107) and McDavid’s Oilers (104).

• If there’s one category where Kucherov falls short, it’s plus/minus. MacKinnon and McDavid both had plus-35 ratings, which tied for second-highest among all NHL forwards. Kucherov was plus-8, and while some of that was affected by being on the ice for most of the 16 empty-net goals the Lightning allowed, the differentiation is glaring. Kucherov did play well defensively this season but also contributed at times to costly turnovers that led to odd-man rushes and Grade-A chances for the opponent.

• Popularity does matter with awards like this, and McDavid and MacKinnon have become the face of the league due to their incredible speed and skill. Kucherov’s game is dynamic in a different way that doesn’t appear as much on ESPN, SportsNet or TSN. He’s at his best when he’s slowing the game down and dissecting a defense. Whether it’s right or wrong, some voters also might have been turned off by Kucherov’s perceived lack of effort during the All-Star Game skills competition. Add his boorishness with the media and disinterest in interviews, and he’s the player of the three with whom voters have less of a connection.

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