Three things have held true in Tampa Bay this season: water is wet, the sky is blue and Nikita Kucherov scores goals.
The trend continued in Los Angeles on Thursday evening, too, as Kucherov, who came into the outing with an incredible 15 goals in 16 games, extended his league-leading tally total to 16 with a breakaway marker in the first period of the Lightning’s 5-2 victory over the Kings. Not one for slowing down so far this season, Kucherov also added two helpers to boost his point total to 29 and continue a three-game streak of multi-point games. And while such a quick start to the season is incredibly impressive, it’s the goal total that’s really shining through, and with Kucherov continuing to light the lamp at an astounding pace, it’s worth wondering where his ceiling is this season.
Already, his 16 goals are nearly half of his career high, 40, which he set last season, and the pace he’s on, scoring nearly a goal per game, is truly remarkable. If he were to keep this up throughout the season, Kucherov would end the campaign with 77 goals. It would make him the first player to hit the 70-goal plateau since Alexander Mogilny and Teemu Selanne had duelling 76-goal campaigns back in 1992-93. Reality isn’t quite as fun as on-pace statistics would suggest, however. Those who truly believe Kucherov can meet his current on-pace total are few and far between. And with good reason.
A few things are working against Kucherov when it comes to continuing to fire at his current rate. The first is that he’s finding twine with 23.9 percent of his shots on goal, which is a gaudy shooting percentage even for the game’s most elite snipers. Consider that even during those 70-goal seasons back in the early 1990s, Mogilny and Selanne shot 21.1 and 19.6 percent, respectively. And in the post-lockout NHL, only 18 players have carried a shooting percentage of 20 percent or better through at least 70 games, only 14 of whom put more than 100 shots on goal. So, continuing on at such a clip isn’t all that likely for Kucherov, which is also true given that throughout his career he’s never had a shooting percentage greater than 16.3 percent and his career average heading into this season was 14.4 percent.
Additionally, by virtue of the number of shots Kucherov has taken, it’s incredibly unlikely he continues to operate at his current shooting success rate. With 67 shots in 17 games, Kucherov finds himself on pace to put 323 pucks on goal this campaign. Only six players in the post-lockout era have made goaltenders face much rubber while maintaining a shooting percentage over 15 percent and the highest shooting percentage among those players is — go figure — that of Kucherov’s linemate Steven Stamkos, who scored on 19.8 percent of his 303 shots during the 2011-12 season. Again, another reason to imagine Kucherov is due for a regression in his shooting percentage. But how much could Kucherov fall off?
While impossible to truly know, we can at least take a look at what he’s done in the past for some comparison. For instance, in order to regress back to his career average of 14.4 percent, Kucherov would need to continue his current shots pace across the Lightning’s final 65 games but only have an 8.2 percent success rate. A dip in shooting percentage of more than 15 percent would be awfully precipitous, however, and it seems unlikely that Kucherov will be firing at a less than 10 percent clip the rest of the way. It might be more reasonable to assume Kucherov starts to flatten out and scores at a rate more in tune with his career rate, which is to suggest he’d beat netminders with about 15 percent of his shots the rest of the way. And if he kept putting pucks on net as he has thus far, a 15-percent shooting percentage the rest of the way would give him a full-season mark that lands at about 16.8 percent. That would be a career best for Kucherov, and it’s not exactly an outlandish and unbelievable rate.
There is some reason to believe Kucherov could actually see less of a regression than that, though, and it has to do with how often and from where Kucherov has been letting pucks go. Compared to his career averages at all strengths, Kucherov is currently putting 2.2 more shots on goal per 60 minutes of play, taking 4.2 additional shot attempts and generating 1.4 more scoring chances for himself. That’s not to mention he’s also seen a very slight increase in high-danger attempts per 60 minutes, as well. So, if he were to maintain that throughout the campaign, it only stands to reason his shooting percentage could hold above 17 percent the rest of the way, which would still be a drop of nearly seven percent from his current rate. Scoring at 17 percent the rest of the way is, in a sense, the magic number for Kucherov, too.
Given his current shots pace, Kucherov, if healthy for all 82 games, is set to fire another 256 shots on goal by the end of the season. And a shooting percentage of 17 percent would see Kucherov add another 44 goals to his total with a full-season shooting percentage in the 18.6 range, a more than reasonable dip of five percent. More important than his shooting percentage, though, is that an additional 44 markers would give Kucherov 60 goals on the year, making him one of only three players in the post-lockout NHL — and, further, in the past 20 years — to achieve the feat, joining Stamkos and Alex Ovechkin among the exclusive group.
So, a 50-goal campaign for the Lightning winger after hitting the 30- and 40-goal plateaus in consecutive years? Forget that. Kucherov is firing for 60, and there’s no reason to believe he can’t get it.
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