The NHL season is over, the Stanley Cup has been awarded. Now it’s time to return to the regular season.
Nikita Kucherov will — finally — get his individual due. He likely will be awarded the Hart Trophy, given to the league’s MVP, on Wednesday night during the NHL Awards show, airing at 8 p.m. on NBCSN.
That won’t be the salve to his or fans’ disappointment in the spectacular failure that was the Lightning’s playoff showing, or playoff invisibility. But it doesn’t need to.
The NHL Awards recognize the regular season, and that was when the Lightning shined.
Kucherov was referred to as the Hart favorite months before the regular season ended.
He was the fastest player to 100 points since Mario Lemieux in 1996-97 back on Feb. 21. Kucherov finished at 128 points, the most of any Russian player ever and the most in the NHL since Jaromir Jagr and Lemieux in 1995-96.
The Hart Trophy often follows the league leader in points, but not necessarily. Taylor Hall was sixth with 93 points last year when he won (Kucherov was third with 103 points and wasn’t a finalist). This year’s finalists are the top scorers (Kucherov and Connor McDavid), plus Sidney Crosby who tied for fifth.
The case for Kucherov is not only that he scored a lot of points.
He scored a record number of points in a way that elevated his game above anyone else this year. Kucherov made plays that had even his coaches wondering what he was doing because he was ahead of everyone else.
That explains Kucherov as favorite for the Ted Lindsay Award (most outstanding as voted by the players), but not Hart (most valuable as voted by the Professional Hockey Writers Association).
How much difference did one more star make on a great Lightning team? Kucherov elevating his game to a new level was a large part of Tampa Bay breaking all the franchise records it set the year before.
The Lightning doesn’t match the NHL wins record without Kucherov. That’s pretty valuable.
Kucherov is the Lightning’s best chance at an award (read: a lock), but he isn’t the only possibility. Jon Cooper is a finalist for the Jack Adams (coach of the year, decided by the National Hockey League Broadcasters Association). Victor Hedman could repeat with the Norris Trophy (best defenseman, decided by the PHWA). Andrei Vasilevskiy again is up for the Vezina Trophy (best goalie, decided by the general managers).
Of these, Hedman is the least likely to win. He had a good year and his value to the Lightning was all but cemented, but he didn’t have nearly the year he did last season when he won the Norris. Calgary’s Mark Giordano is the favorite in that race.
Vasilevskiy has a clear case for Vezina, after finishing third in last year’s voting. He led the league in wins (39), sixth in save percentage (.925) and ninth in GAA (2.40), all while backstopping the league’s best team in a historic regular season.
The goalie definitely stole games (the 54-save overtime win against Washington and 49-save win over Toronto come to mind) to earn those wins. Despite the Lightning’s offensively onslaught all season, rarely did the team steal Vasilevskiy a win.
Vasilevskiy’s issue could be his former teammate Ben Bishop. The Dallas goalie led the league in save percentage (.934) and was second in GAA (1.98). The Stars didn’t have the success the Lightning did, but Bishop was a big part of the season they had.
That brings us to Cooper. The Lightning coach certainly earned his spot as a finalist. He took largely the same team as last season and elevated it to a new regular-season level. That can’t be all from the players.
The number of stars on the Lightning, however, could work against Cooper. Coach of the year awards tend to go to the coach deemed to have done the most with the least. Cooper did not have the least.
Barry Trotz took the Islanders from the bottom third of the league to competing for the Metropolitan Division in his first year with the team. Craig Berube took over St. Louis in November,d then took the Blues from worst in the league (beginning of January) to a spot in the playoffs.
This race is hard to predict, but even without the bias of knowing how each team ended its regular season, Berube looks like a good pick.