Sunday, October 21, 2018
Tampa Bay Lightning

Can Nikita Kucherov join the NHL’s most exclusive club?

Every few years, someone approaches Mike Bossy about his membership in an exclusive club.

The NHL’s 50-in-50 club.

Bossy, the Islanders’ Hall of Fame wing, is one of five players who scored 50 goals in his team’s first 50 games of a season. The others: Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Maurice Richard and Brett Hull.

The subject of 50 in 50 comes up whenever a scorer gets off to a hot start, such as Simon Gagne in 2005-06, Steven Stamkos in 2010-11 and Nikita Kucherov this season.

The feat hasn’t been accomplished in 25 years — Hull did it in 1991-92 — and Kucherov is the latest illustration of why. After scoring 17 goals in his first 19 games, Kucherov is goalless in six straight.

Only four players have scored 50 goals in a season since 2009.

Today’s style of play isn’t as wide open as it was in the 1980s and ’90s when Gretzky, Lemieux, Bossy and Hull dominated. Goalies are much better and bigger, as are their pads. Extensive video and analytics help teams adjust quicker and shut down opposing stars.

Then again, the recent crackdown on slashing has given playmakers more room, plenty of power plays and greater scoring opportunities.

NBSCN analyst Pierre McGuire said there has never been the amount of young talent thrust into the league as there is today. Many of the young players weren’t born the last time 50 in 50 was accomplished.

"It wasn’t easy to do for me," said Bossy, 60. "I’m sure that other guys who did it can appreciate the pressure and the media attention that it brings.

"It’s a matter of consistency, a lot of sacrifice and dedication, a lot of wanting to do it. Obviously, a lot of things have to fall in the right place."

•••

Gagne, a former Lightning forward, racked up 17 goals in the Flyers’ first 15 games of 2005-06. The way he and linemate Peter Forsberg were tearing it up reminds Gagne of the chemistry Stamkos and Kucherov have. (The 50-in-50 club members all had stud linemates: Gretzky with Jari Kurri, Hull with Adam Oates, Lemieux with Jaromir Jagr, Bossy with Bryan Trottier. You get the picture.)

After the 2004 lockout, the new collective bargaining agreement rid the NHL of obstruction, clutching and grabbing, and the rule against two-line passing. It sparked the desired offensive onslaught, and Gagne wasn’t alone in his scoring surge. Ottawa’s Daniel Alfredsson and Atlanta’s Dany Heatley had 15 goals in their first 15 games.

Gagne said this season’s crackdown on slashing reminds him of life after the lockout. That could help a player like Kucherov.

"As soon as a player gets a stick on their gloves, or their pants, it’s two minutes (penalty)," Gagne said. "You get more power plays, more space in tight areas. It’s easier to beat guys one-on-one now."

A key factor is health. Gagne believes he had a shot at 50 in 50 until he got hurt in February at the 2006 Olympics. Darius Kasparaitis hip checked Gagne in a knee, resulting in a bone bruise that cost him games. After 17 goals in 15 games, Gagne registered just 17 more in the Flyers’ next 35, finishing with 47.

"I was getting those bounces and luck usually you don’t have," he said. "It’s almost like everything happened around the same time. That’s the type of year you need to jump on it."

•••

Stamkos, Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin are the only players to score 50 or more goals in a season since 2010. Stamkos scored 60 in 2012, but his best shot at 50 in 50 came in 2011, when he had 20 in 21 games.

"Everyone was like, ‘50 in 50,’ " Stamkos said. "And it wasn’t even close."

Stamkos ended up with 45.

"I don’t think anyone thinks about 50 goals in 50 games," he said, "If you have (performance) goals before the season, it’s to score 40 or score 50, not to score 50 in 50."

Bossy was different in 1980-81. He wanted it. Badly. And he wasn’t afraid to say it, which sparked more scrutiny from the press.

Bossy had 48 goals in 47 games, then didn’t score in the next two. In Game 50, he wasn’t playing well. Then, with five minutes left, the Islanders had a power play, and Bossy put in a rebound. A few minutes later, on a broken play, Bossy got magic No. 50.

"From after two periods wondering if I’d ever score a goal again to getting two goals in the last five minutes," Bossy said. "It was a huge load off my shoulders. At some point, I mentioned I wanted to get 50 in 50. It brought a lot of attention on myself."

Kucherov has seen increased attention from opponents, who are following him more away from the puck. The chances he was scoring on earlier in the season have turned into stellar saves, like Tukka Rask’s sliding pad save late in second period of a 3-2 loss at Boston on Wednesday.

Kucherov said he doesn’t think about scoring 50 in 50. But would he like to accomplish it?

"I wouldn’t hate it," he said, smiling.

He has a lot of catching up to do. Bossy recalled getting back on pace with a few hat tricks between Games 40 and 50. Some of Kucherov’s peers think he can do likewise. Said Islanders star John Tavares said: "It’s going to take something special, but (Kucherov) has got the talent for it."

Said former Lightning goalie Ben Bishop: "If there’s a guy who can do it, it’d probably be him."

Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.

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