Kucherov has a shot at producing the best offensive season in the salary cap era

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(AP Photo/Chris O’Meara, File)
(AP Photo/Chris O’Meara, File)

Nikita Kucherov entered the final month of 2018 with a very respectable 10-25-35 in just 25 games.

That put him fourth in the NHL and within striking distance of Mitch Marner (37 points), Nathan MacKinnon (41) and league-leader Mikko Rantanen (43).

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At the time, Kucherov was on pace to score about 32 goals and 110 total points. The latter would have blown past his previous career high by 10 percent. The former would have represented a bit of a slowdown from previous seasons, when he scored 39 or 40, but you can’t argue with a fifth consecutive season of 30-plus goals.

And then the rest of December happened.

From Dec. 1 to 31, Kucherov scored 9-21-30 in just 14 games and ripped the league scoring race wide open. Where he entered the month seven points behind Rantanen, he ended it up three. And if you really want to crunch the numbers, he did all that while Rantanen still registered better than a point a game (6-13-19 in 14 appearances).

And then in his first game of the new year, Kucherov went off again, registering a goal and three assists against the Kings. It was, somehow, his third game with four or more points in just 13 days, and his SEVENTH-STRAIGHT multi-point effort.

So for reference, that’s 34 points in the last 15 games for Kucherov. If you wipe out all the scoring he did before Dec. 1 (and remember, he was fourth in the league at that point), he would still be tied with Mika Zibanejad and Evgeny Kuznetsov for 67th in the league in scoring.

Kucherov is back on pace for his 40 goals — standard at this point — and 138 points. His previous high was 100. And while 40 goals seems to be an increasingly common occurrence for high-end players these days, no one has topped 130 points in a season in the salary cap era. The highest total is Joe Thornton’s from his MVP 2005-06, split between the Bruins and Sharks, when he had 125 (thanks to a literally incredible 96 assists).

I know goaltending is down this year, but for Kucherov to fly by Thornton’s number, or even come close to it, is incredible. The current league-wide save percentage is still actually eight points higher than it was when Thornton was the best player in the league. That only makes Kucherov’s body of work all the more impressive.

So I guess what I’m saying is: Kucherov is good. But how sustainable is his scoring, actually? For one thing, he’s shooting north of 17.2 percent in all situations, which isn’t too high above his pre-2018 career average of 14.3 percent, but you can expect it to come down a little.

More worrying is he’s also not shooting as much this season; it’s a luxury he gets because he mostly plays with Brayden Point and Steven Stamkos, which is why he has so many assists. He has the primary assist on 12 of Stamkos’s 23 goals, and eight of Point’s 24. Conversely, both of them together have the primaries on just eight of Kucherov’s 20.

So the extent to which the Tampa offense runs through this one player simultaneously seems built to last and a little tenuous, right?

In fact, Kucherov is attempting 17.6 shots an hour, which is good for 29th in the league right now, but only about half of those end up on goal. Last year, his SOG per attempt rate was about the same, but he was taking an extra three attempts per 60 minutes, and if you can add a shot and a half every hour you play, you’re going to see those numbers hold up a lot better.

Problematically, the number of individual expected goals he’s generating through both shot quality and quantity are down about 20 percent from where they were two seasons ago, and 15 percent from last year. That’s because he’s shooting less, for sure, but also because the number of high-danger attempts he’s taking himself is down by a full chance per hour.

The good news for Kucherov’s chances at breaking Thornton’s cap-era record is that his teammates are picking up the slack for him: Tampa is generating 16 percent MORE expected goals per hour when Kucherov is on the ice than it was two years ago.

Much like Brad Marchand said he was deferring more to David Pastrnak and Patrice Bergeron instead of shooting himself because they were hot and he still got to pick his own spots. While there’s only one puck on the ice, Kucherov certainly has it in his power to start shooting the puck more if Stamkos or Point slow down a bit. But for now, he has no reason to do so. And if he’s being a little more selective in his shooting, it would make sense that his percentages are going up.

At this point, with half a season and “just” 56 points to go before he runs into Thornton’s record, all things really do seem possible. Kucherov could slow down, but his talent level — plus that of his linemates and the system the Lightning play — should keep him comfortably above a point a game the rest of the way.

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Ryan Lambert is a Yahoo! Sports hockey columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

All stats via Corsica unless otherwise noted.

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