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And The Hart Goes to… The Case for Kucherov

Photo: Tampa Bay Lightning

As we head through the final stretch of the 2023-2024 NHL season, the race for the Hart Trophy for the league’s most valuable player is intensifying. Current betting sites continue to favor Avalanche forward Nathan MacKinnon. There is frequent talk of Edmonton Oilers’ perennial Hart Trophy winner Connor McDavid and a recent goal-scoring frenzy for Toronto Maple Leaf Auston Matthews is boosting his odds. But if the trophy goes to the player who is truly most valuable to his team, then there is a clear winner: Tampa Bay Lightning right winger Nikita Kucherov.

What is the Hart?

The Hart Trophy is awarded to the player in the National Hockey League who is voted as the most important to his team’s success. It is different from the Art Ross Trophy- awarded to the player with the highest point total in the league and from the Rocket Richard Trophy- awarded to the player who scores the most goals in the league. The Hart Trophy should go to a player who consistently carries his team to a higher level.

The Competition

Nikita Kucherov currently leads the league in points. He has played in 59 of the Lightning’s 60 games and has a total of 102 points- 38 goals and 64 assists. The Lightning currently hold the second wildcard spot in the Eastern Conference with 69 points and a plus five goal differential.

The next highest scorer in the league is Nathan MacKinnon with 96 points in his 59 games- 34 goals and 62 assists. His Avalanche team sits in third place in the Central Division with a plus 28 goal differential.

Third in the race is the Edmonton Oilers’ Connor McDavid. McDavid has played in 53 of his team’s 55 games and has 89 points- 21 goals and 68 assists. The Oilers are currently holding down the third position in the Pacific Division with 68 points and a plus 31 goal differential.

The final main competitor for the Hart Trophy is in eighth place overall for scoring in the league. Auston Matthews has 77 points for the Toronto Maple Leafs- 52 goals and 25 assists in 56 games. His Leafs sits third in the Atlantic Division with 74 points and a plus 35 goal differential.

What They Mean to Their Teams

Nikita Kucherov, the only member of the Bolts selected for this year’s all-star team, has been involved in HALF of the Lightning’s goals this season. The Bolts have a total of 204 goals scored this season and Kucherov’s 102 points mean that he has been involved in one out of every two goals the team has scored all season. The next highest scorer on the Lightning is Brayden Point with 62 points. A whopping 40 points below Kucherov. Further, the Lightning’s goal differential when Kucherov is on the ice is plus 51. Without him on the ice, they are a minus 46! For a team clinging to the final wildcard spot in a conference, with this significant a goal differential depending on one man’s presence, one has to ask… where would they be in the standings without the contributions of Nikita Kucherov?

Nathan MacKinnon was one of three Avalanche players selected to this year’s all-star game. He was joined by teammates Cale Makar (defense) and Alexandar Georgiev (goaltender). The Avalanche have 214 goals this season. MacKinnon has been involved in 96 of those goals, meaning he has contributed to 44.85 percent of his team’s goals. The next highest scorer on the team is Miko Rantanen with 74 points- 22 fewer than MacKinnon. Without MacKinnon on the ice, the Avalanche have a minus 36 goal differential.

The Edmonton Oilers have scored 195 goals this season. Connor McDavid’s 89 points mean that he has contributed to 45.64 percent of his team’s goals. His line-mate and fellow all-star team captain Leon Draisaitl trails him by 18 points with 71 on the season thus far. The Edmonton Oilers as a team have a goal differential of minus 20 without MacKinnon on the ice.

Finally, Auston Matthews- one of the four players representing the Maple Leafs at the all-star game. Matthews has one point fewer than teammate William Nylander. The Leafs have 210 goals this season, meaning that Matthews has contributed to 36.67 percent of his team’s goals. His team sports a goal differential of minus 27 when he is not on the ice.

Historical Precedent

Each of the above players is certainly making an important contribution to his team this year. So how can we make the decision? Let’s look to the 2017-2018 Hart Trophy voting for a precedent. In that season, the trophy did not go to the top scorer in the league. Instead, it went to the sixth highest scorer. The league’s leading scorer that year was Connor McDavid, but his team finished with an abysmal record and did not make the playoffs. The next four leading scorers all played for playoff teams, but all had good support from their teammates. The trophy went to New Jersey Devil forward Taylor Hall. Hall’s team just squeaked into a playoff spot with no other player on his team even in the top 50 scorers in the league. The Lightning now find themselves in a potentially similar situation in which Kucherov could carry the team into the playoffs with no one else on his team even close to his point total. The difference is that instead of being in sixth place in the league for scoring, Kucherov currently sits in first.

The Verdict

Nikita Kucherov might not be as flashy a player or as fast a skater as MacKinnon or McDavid. He might not be a pure goal scorer like Auston Matthews. But the Hart Trophy is not an award for the best goal scorer in the league or for the fastest skater. It is an award for the player who elevates his team on a regular basis. Kucherov just completed a seven-point weekend. He was part of all four goals the team scored to beat the New Jersey Devils

Coach Jon Cooper commented that Kucherov is playing better now than he did in the 2019 season when he previously won the Hart Trophy. But that was a different Lightning team. It was a team that won the President’s Trophy and set the record at the time for most points in a single season. This year’s Lightning team will not be winning a President’s Trophy. But they are battling for a playoff spot. And one main reason why they are still in the battle has been the play of Nikita Kucherov.

While other players make important contributions to their teams, there is no player in the league more directly responsible for his team’s success this season than Kucherov. Without Kucherov, the Tampa Bay Lightning would likely be a draft lottery team this season. If they do make the playoffs, they will have Kucherov to thank for it, and for that, he should be the clear front runner in the race for the Hart Trophy.


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