Is Nikita Kucherov the best player in the NHL this season?

Lightning coach Jon Cooper calls Kucherov the best on the planet right now.
Tampa Bay Lightning right wing Nikita Kucherov (86), seen here celebrating a goal earlier this month, is bidding to become the league's best player this season. DIRK SHADD   |   Times
Tampa Bay Lightning right wing Nikita Kucherov (86), seen here celebrating a goal earlier this month, is bidding to become the league's best player this season. DIRK SHADD | Times
Published Jan. 27, 2019|Updated Jan. 28, 2019

SAN JOSE, Calif. — Nikita Kucherov sits at the top of the NHL in points and he’s been there since December. But is he the best player in the league this season?

One does not necessarily mean the other, nor does either translate to the Hart Trophy, annually given to the league’s most valuable player. None of last year’s three finalists were in the top four in scoring.

The Professional Hockey Writers Association, which votes on the Hart Trophy, is eyeing Kucherov for the honor, however. He won the mid-season ballot.

In Saturday’s all-star game, Kucherov produced three shots on goal, but failed to point in the Atlantic Division’s 7-4 loss to the Metropolitan Division. That exhibition performance, however, did nothing to dent Jon Cooper’s opinion of Kucherov’s season.

“Do I believe he is one of the best, if not the best player on the planet right now?” the Lightning coach said. “I truly do believe that.”

He then followed that up by saying there are a handful of players in that debate and people will always pull for their own players. But those debates are one of the fun things about sports.

Still, some opponents definitely see Kucherov as a league elite. When Nashville defenseman Roman Josi ran down the list of Lightning assets, he singled out one individual player: Kucherov. Even on the best team in the league, what Kucherov is doing this season stands above.

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Kucherov has 78 points on the season. Seven players have scored 70 or more points on the season, but Kucherov did it in just 43 games.

His 19:22 of ice time leads the Lightning’s forwards but is 41st in the league. The only other player in the top 10 for scoring not ahead of Kucherov in time on ice is his linemate Brayden Point.

Kucherov demurs when asked about his standing among the league’s best, not wanting to boast. But others don’t hesitate to give praise.

Steven Stamkos agrees with Cooper’s assessment, allowing that he is obviously biased.

He then assessed the other obvious contenders: Connor McDavid (“what he’s able to do is pretty remarkable”) and Sidney Crosby (“It’s about wins in this league and he’s found ways to not only win but dominate”). But as far as right now, this season, Stamkos names Kucherov the best.

“Not everyone is blessed with the ability to do what he can do with the puck, plain and simple,” Stamkos said. “I wish I could handle the puck and see the ice like he can. I’m sure a lot of players would.”

That he envied Kucherov’s puck-handling just after scoring arguably the most impressive goal of the All-Star Game, a jaw-dropping dangle around Henrik Lundqvist, shows just how impressive Kucherov’s skills are.

“His offensive creativity and skill set is one of the highest I’ve ever had an opportunity to see, and watch, and be a part of,” Stamkos said. “That’s what separates him. His work ethic is what puts him over the top, but his raw skill set is amazing.”

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RELATED STORY: Nikita Kucherov has the best line of All-Star Game

Kucherov is on pace for 130 points, and he’d be the first to reach that mark since Wayne Gretzky did in 1993-94. That would also be a new record for a Russian in the NHL.

Cooper joked whether Kucherov can hit that number or not depends on how much the coach plays him. A few years ago, Cooper would have said he didn’t think players would reach those numbers again. But now, with scoring on the rise, he thinks they will. It might not be this year, but when those numbers come back around, Kucherov will be a part of it.

Of course, some in the league, and its observers, stop short of naming Kucherov the best.

TSN Insider Pierre Lebrun, for example, still goes with McDavid, but gives Kucherov credit.

“Kucherov reminds me of Crosby, in the sense that he’s never at the finish line,” LeBrun said. “Whatever he’s just done isn’t good enough. I love the players that clearly play with that edge. He’s not easily satisfied.”

NHL Points Leaders

  1. Nikita Kucherov, TB 78
  2. Mikko Rantanen, Col. 74
  3. Johnny Gaudreau, Cal. 73
  4. Connor McDavid, Edm.  73
  5. Patrick Kane, Chi. 71
  6. Nathan MacKinnon, Col. 71
  7. Brayden Point, TB 65
  8. Mitch Marner, Tor 62