Steven Stamkos has been captain of the Tampa Bay Lightning since late 2013-14, proudly wearing a ‘C’ once held by the likes of Dave Andreychuk, Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St-Louis. It’s an honor Stamkos has held for the past four-plus seasons and will continue to hold for the foreseeable future, a title befitting a player who was once the young hope of the franchise and has become a consistently productive, high-scoring veteran.
In some cities, the captaincy corresponds with the player who would be considered each franchise’s leader. The Washington Capitals are Alex Ovechkin’s team, much like the Edmonton Oilers are Connor McDavid’s and the Pittsburgh Penguins are Sidney Crosby’s. There are others where the same can’t be said. For instance, Andy Greene captains the New Jersey Devils, but most would say that franchise’s success hinges on Taylor Hall. Likewise, the captainless Toronto Maple Leafs are Auston Matthews’ team. And though the Boston Bruins’ Zdeno Chara, Chicago Blackhawks’ Jonathan Toews and Calgary Flames’ Mark Giordano wear the ‘C’ for their respective clubs, it’s Patrice Bergeron, Patrick Kane and Johnny Gaudreau, respectively, who are largely considered the driving forces behind on-ice success for each franchise.
And in Tampa Bay, it has become clear that while Stamkos wears the most important letter, the Lightning are almost undoubtedly Nikita Kucherov’s team.
The transfer of ownership has been underway for a few seasons now, beginning back during the 2016-17 campaign. That season, as Kucherov skated the first of a three-year bridge deal with a sizeable chip on his shoulder, you could see it starting to happen. With Stamkos sidelined for much of the season — he played just 17 games as the result of a knee injury — Kucherov took the reins. He led the attack with a breakout 40-goal, 85-point season, and that’s when the debate about whose team the Lightning really were began to take hold.
The real shift happened last season, though. A healthy Stamkos was excellent, to be sure, but Kucherov was simply better. He was more consistent and more dangerous. His highs were higher and his lows were rare. As he went, so went the Lightning, and his 100-point campaign trumped anything that Stamkos accomplished. Kucherov was leaned on more heavily offensively, he was given more ice time and his influence was, frankly, greater. And that has only continued this season.
In fact, that Kucherov is the de facto leader of the Lightning, not Stamkos, is hardly a matter worth debating.
While Stamkos has again been effective, posting 10 goals and 26 points in 29 games, Kucherov has been spectacular. He has 12 goals and 42 points in 29 games, tops all Lightning forwards in ice time and during this recent run in which Tampa Bay has won nine of its past 11 games, Kucherov has neared on unstoppable, scoring five goals and an eye-popping 24 points over that span. By comparison, that’s twice as many as Stamkos and six more than the Lightning’s second-highest scorer, Brayden Point.
From some play-driving perspectives, too, there are indications that no player has led Tampa Bay quite like Kucherov. Since the start of the 2017-18 season, and broken down into per 60-minute rates at 5-on-5, Kucherov leads the Bolts in on-ice shot attempts and goals, while ranking second and third in shots and scoring chances, respectively. That puts Kucherov ahead of Stamkos in each category, and the individual totals create a chasm between Kucherov and almost every other Lightning forward. Among Tampa Bay attackers with at least 500 minutes over the past two seasons, and again measured per 60 minutes at 5-on-5, Kucherov is first in points (3.0) and tied for first in goals (1.2). He’s also first in shots, attempts and second in scoring chances. (Stamkos does lead in first assists and total assists, though Kucherov ranks second by one-tenth of a helper in both categories.)
It should be said, too, that by a dollars-and-cents measure, Kucherov sits ahead of Stamkos. On cap hit alone, the Lightning made it clear that there may be no other player more valuable than Kucherov, who inked an eight-year extension that carries a $9.5-million cap hit that makes him the team’s highest player next season. And if you want to make a more accurate comparison, one using cap hit percentage at the time the deal was signed, Kucherov’s deal still sees him paid more than Stamkos’ eight-year, $68-million pact inked in June 2016. The captain’s contract came in at 11.64 percent of the upper limit at the time. Kucherov’s deal, when signed, was equivalent to 11.95 percent of the cap limit.
None of this is to say that Stamkos doesn’t bring his own value. His game has evolved. He’s given more defensive responsibility as a pivot, has been excellent on the dot this season and is arguably a better two-way player than Kucherov. Plus, Stamkos still possesses one of the best one-timers in the league. He can absolutely unload, and that gives the Lightning power play a depth that few units in either conference boast. There’s also more to being a leader, particularly in the sense of the team captaincy, than putting points on the board. There’s a reason why players such as Chara, Toews and Giordano continue to wear the ‘C’ despite legitimate claims that others are the leaders of those teams. That’s to say that no one is calling — or should ever call — for Stamkos to cede the captaincy to Kucherov. Not one bit.
But when it comes to who is most synonymous with Tampa Bay’s on-ice success, what was becoming clear last season has become even clearer now: the Lightning used to be Stamkos’ team, but the torch has been passed to Kucherov.