Last year, the Hart Trophy debate revolved around whether the Professional Hockey Writers Association could name someone “the player judged most valuable to his team” if that player's team missed the playoffs. The answer was no. Connor McDavid was the consensus pick for “world’s best player” but, captaining an Edmonton Oilers team out of contention, he only finished fifth in Hart voting, while Taylor Hall, who carried the New Jersey Devils singlehandedly to the post-season, took the most-valuable award. To find the most recent non-playoff Hart winner, we must look 31 years in the past to Mario Lemieux, who snagged it in 1987-88 after his Pittsburgh Penguins missed the big dance by a point.
The NHL players vote on the Ted Lindsay Award, not for most valuable player, but for most outstanding, and McDavid was a shoo-in choice last season, winning it a second straight time. With each passing day in 2018-19, the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Nikita Kucherov strengthens his case to earn most-outstanding-player honors. He’s now pulling away from the field with 92 points in 58 games, leading second-place Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks by seven.
But whereas a team too crummy killed McDavid’s Hart hopes last season, a team too fantastic might do the same to Kucherov this time. The Bolts’ 90 points put them 15 points ahead of second overall. Their .776 points percentage is the sixth-best of the expansion era and second-best in the past 23 seasons. They lead the NHL in goals with 3.78, the highest average of any team this millennium. They boast the NHL’s No. 1 power play, No. 3 penalty kill and No. 1 goal differential. Kucherov leads the league in scoring, but Steven Stamkos and Brayden Point give the Lightning three of NHL’s top eight point-getters. Blueliner Victor Hedman is the reigning Norris Trophy winner, while Andrei Vasilevskiy, a Vezina Trophy finalist last season, might be the award’s frontrunner this season.
Many of the league’s MVP candidates have strong supporting casts. Patrick Kane has made magic reunited with Jonathan Toews in Chicago, while Johnny Gaudreau feeds pucks to Sean Monahan and Elias Lindholm. But no one can touch Kucherov’s collection of teammates. It’s not his “fault,” but the idea of naming someone “most valuable to his team” becomes murky when a team has so many players extremely valuable to it. Kucherov was all-world last season, reaching 100 points for the first time, but could only finish sixth in Hart voting. Hedman received one fifth-place vote, and no other Bolt landed on any ballots – not even the Vezina finalist Vasilevskiy. It was as if they were all killing each other's votes via their mutual awesomeness.
There’s a decent chance, then, that Kucherov runs into the same problem again unless he distances himself even further in the scoring race. The likes of Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky had no problem piling up MVPs on teams loaded with Hall of Famers, but they were so far ahead of their competition most of the time that it was impossible not to hand them the Hart. Fair or not, Kucherov will likely have to overachieve or at least maintain his current lead on the pack to win it.
Past PHWA voter patterns suggest Kucherov, a top-two or -three player in the world, has a slippery hold on the Hart at best despite a healthy grip on the Lindsay. That doesn’t necessarily mean he deserves to lose out on the Hart. Should Kucherov get more credit for his individual dominance? Let’s dive a bit deeper into the numbers with a little help from naturalstattrick.com.
Kucherov’s most common linemates at 5-on-5 in 2018-19 are Point (495:19), Tyler Johnson (469:03), Stamkos (259:25), J.T. Miller (155:01) and Ondrej Palat (143:36). All five have stronger Corsi For percentages with Kucherov than without. Kucherov actually has a higher Corsi without Point and Johnson than with them, though that’s not a huge surprise given Point often centers lines that take on the team’s toughest defensive assignments. Still, it appears that, more than any other skater on the Bolts, Kucherov is indeed the driver of the play. Among the 468 NHL skaters with at least 500 minutes played at 5-on-5 this season, Kucherov ranks second in primary assists per 60 minutes behind only the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Mitch Marner.
The flip side – and this applies to Marner as well – is that you earn more assists for all those great setups when you have strong finishers on the receiving end. That highlights the root of Kucherov’s Hart challenge. He did win the PHWA’s mid-season vote for MVP (I didn’t vote him for first place, admittedly), but the Lightning's record now stands at 43-11-4. Ask yourself: how good would this exact team be without Kucherov? Not nearly as good, of course…but probably still quite good, right? Now ask the same question about where the Blackhawks would be without Kane. You shuddered, didn’t you?
Kucherov has arguably been the league’s best hockey player in 2018-19. To earn the distinction of most valuable to his team, though, he’ll have to remain superhuman for two more months.