They handed Nikita Kucherov trophies Wednesday night in Las Vegas. It wasn’t the trophy, the Stanley Cup, the prize Kucherov and his Tampa Bay Lightning teammates still want, painfully so after that abrupt Hindenburg conclusion to what had been a record-setting hay ride.
But here’s to Kucherov winning the Hart Trophy as the most valuable player in the National Hockey League and the Ted Lindsay Award as the players’ MVP pick. He was nothing short of the best player in the game, in the world, in 2018-19. That his or his team’s best wasn’t enough didn’t matter Wednesday. That Kucherov wants more is what really matters.
On one level, this awards show, the Lightning all dressed up with nowhere else to go, seemed a bit out of place given the carnage that was its epic first-round playoff sweep at the hands of Johnny Torts and his Columbus Blue Jackets. The sweep included Kucherov’s no-show, and his frustration and petulance on display, that cheap hit and one-game suspension it brought during that series. Not the way to leave a season.
But Kucherov won the Hart and Ted Lindsay as well as the Art Ross Trophy for being the league’s scoring champion. In game shows, these are known as lovely parting gifts.
But this is a time to celebrate what Kucherov did and, more to the point, what might lie ahead.
Only two athletes in Tampa Bay’s major professional sports have ever been voted league MVP. No Bucs player has, though Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks were defensive MVPs. No Rays player has ever achieved it. Only the Lightning, namely Marty St. Louis and his magic in the franchise’s 2003-04 Cup season, and now Kucherov. That’s it. And that made Wednesday special.
This season, Tampa Bay fans witnessed performance art on a nearly nightly basis. No one was better than No. 86. Even now, it’s hard to see Kucherov like we saw Marty. Maybe it was Kucherov’s occasional silent way, maybe it was his Russian heritage, or maybe it was that he didn’t finish it all off with his game’s ultimate prize, all that he cared about anyway.
But his was a season that took your breath away. He scored 41 goals and had 128 points, the most ever for a Russian-born player, and don’t think that didn’t mean something to Kucherov.
He led the league in points, assists and power-play points. He shattered Lightning records. He had 38 multipoint games. Every time we looked up, he was doing something else, something better, something bigger. It was child’s play at times, no-look passes, breakaway talent on hockey’s greatest stage. He made everyone who played with him better.
Behind it all was a drive that didn’t quit. It was the same drive that propelled Kucherov from a kid who once was a healthy scratch in 2014 playoff games against Montreal into a major force in Lightning fortunes.
Kucherov turned 26 on Monday. It is all in front of him. He is coming off consecutive 100-point seasons, and there is no reason to believe that streak won’t grow. This might be the start of something we’ve never seen in this town, a superstar who comes with a growth chart.
It’s all about the next step for Kucherov. He and his teammates failed to punctuate a season that demanded an exclamation point. Kucherov dropped his guard and let immaturity into his head, and it left a bad picture in a lot of our heads. It raised the question: Is Kucherov going to be able to take the Lightning over the top?
He has the ability. He has the inner drive to grow. This team is counting on that. The window remains open. Now Kucherov has trophies, hardware. But what’s ahead is what matters. Kucherov knows that only one trophy matters. Lucky for Lightning fans, it’s the one he wants most.