Lightning Need Kucherov to Return to Hart Trophy Winning Form

Few players will have a season quite as unique and controversial as Nikita Kucherov in 2020-21. Before the shortened regular season kicked off, he had a major hip surgery that, conveniently, kept him out of the lineup (and his cap hit off the books) until Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Upon his return, Kucherov showed no rust in his play, as he posted eight goals and 32 points in 23 playoff games, en route to helping the Lightning win back-to-back Stanley Cups. While he will be most remembered for his inebriated post-victory press conference, it can’t be understated just how important his play was to Tampa Bay, even if they were able to reach the playoffs without him starting a game during the regular season.

Nikita Kucherov Tampa Bay Lightning
There’s a reason why Nikita Kucherov is considered one of the elite superstars in the NHL, as he has a scoring acumen that few in the league can match. (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

With the start of the 2021-22 season upon us, a common question involves what the next year will look like for Kucherov. After he paced the NHL back in 2018-19 by scoring 128 points and earning the Hart Trophy, it would be easy to believe that the Russian superstar has already played his single best season of hockey.

However, if you know anything about Kucherov, it’s that you should never underestimate what he can do on the ice, as he has a knack for making any doubters look like fools.

What Kucherov Should Bring to the Lightning in 2021-22

Since Kucherov hasn’t played a full season in more than two years, trying to figure out where his point totals should lie will rely on a bit of extrapolation. Throughout 2019-20, his scoring looked decidedly more human than the year prior, as he was ‘only’ on a 1.25 point per game scoring pace, meaning that he was on pace to score 102 points throughout a full 82-game schedule.

Now, for a normal hockey player, that total would be a career year, but for Kucherov, that was seen as a bit of a letdown. However, it would have been his third-straight season scoring at least 100 points, which is a feat few players can say they accomplished.

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So, based on his last few regular seasons, it looks like Kucherov should threaten to score 100 points if he stays healthy. However, there is an aspect that may get overlooked that should help him further, and that is how well his linemates have been playing.

Point and Palat Are Thriving on Lightning’s Top Line

During his absence in 2020-21, both Brayden Point and Ondrej Palat had one of their best NHL seasons. For Point, he played all 56 games while posting 23 goals and 48 points, which led the Lightning in both categories. For Palat, he scored 15 goals and 46 points, which put him on his best scoring pace since the 2014-15 season, when he was on, arguably, the best line in the NHL alongside a prime Tyler Johnson and Kucherov.

With a healthy Kucherov plugged back into a top-line alongside Point and Palat, these three have the potential to do some real damage over the course of a full 82-game schedule. If they can continue to find the same chemistry they saw throughout the 2020 and 2021 playoffs, they could set a new high mark for their scoring totals, especially at even strength.

Brayden Point Tampa Bay Lightning
With a potential full season playing alongside Brayden Point and Ondrej Palat, Kucherov could see his point totals increase over the 2019-20 regular season, as these two players were a driving offensive factor for the Tampa Bay Lightning in his absence. (Photo by Scott Audette/NHLI via Getty Images)

This is all in a perfect world, of course. A lot can go wrong throughout a long regular season, as injury and stretches of unlucky play can strike at any time. As we saw on opening night, even the most offensively gifted teams can get stifled by a strong defensive structure and a good goaltender.

Kucherov has the potential to be in the Hart Trophy discussion every season he takes the ice, however, and if the Lightning are going to compete for their third-straight Stanley Cup, they will need him to live up to this superstar billing. He has done nothing but surpass every expectation placed on him throughout his career, so there’s no reason to believe that he can’t be one of the league’s top players again in 2021-22.