The Tampa Bay Lightning continued to roll on Thursday night with a dominating 5-2 win over the Los Angeles Kings. Leading the way was Nikita Kucherov with another three-point effort including his league-leading 16th goal of the season. He enters play on Friday with a three-goal lead over Alex Ovechkin for the top spot in the NHL and is of to one of the best starts to a season (at least as far as goal-scoring is concerned) in recent league history.
After scoring a career-high 40 goals a year ago (in only 74 games) he looks like he is destined to shatter that number this season, barring injury.
So what is his ceiling or goals this season? 45? 50? Maybe even 60?
Keep in mind this is an era where the 50-goal scorer is nearly extinct. Over the past 10 seasons only nine different players have scored at least 50 goals in a season. Only three have hit that mark since the start of the 2011-12 season. But we also haven’t really seen a player storm out of the gates quite like this. Not even Alex Ovechkin, the greatest goal scorer of this generation and one of the best to ever play in the NHL, has started a season with this many goals this far in.
According to the Hockey-Reference database, Kucherov is just the 20th player since the start of the 1987-88 season to score at least 16 goals in his team’s first 17 games of a season.
He is just the fourth player to do it since 1996. Two of the other three were Daniel Alfredsson and Simon Gagne during the 2005-06 season, the one year in the past two decades when goal-scoring across the league saw a significant spike, and, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, Alex Steen.
The rest of the players all did it during the run-and-gun late 1980s and early 1990s.
When looking at the list of previous players to score 16 goals in his team’s first 17 games all but one went on to score at least 30 goals. The one player that didn’t was Chris Kontos, finishing the 1992-93 season with 27.
Steen was the only other player on the list to not score at least 40, having scored 33 goals in 68 games.
That would have been a 39-goal pace over 82 games.
Twelve of them went on to score at least 50 goals, including some video game type numbers from the likes of Mario Lemieux, Brett Hull, Steve Yzerman and Bernie Nicholls in the late 80s and early 90s.
What stands out the most about Kucherov’s start, aside from the fact he is doing it in 2017-18 when players simply do not score goals like this, is the fact that he has one of the lowest shooting percentages (23.8) out of that group during the opening 17-game stretch. That number is a bit of a spike from his career average (15 percent) but it is still 17th in the league right now. So it’s not like it is all a luck driven run of success.
Along with a spike in shooting percentage Kucherov is also generating shots on goal at what would be a career-high rate, averaging 3.94 per game.
If he maintains a 23 percent shooting percentage the rest of the way he would score an additional 58 goals on top of what he has already scored. That is … probably not realistic, but is it entirely impossible? Over the past 10 years there have been four players (Brad Boyes, Loui Eriksson, Jason Spezza, Mark Scheifele) that have recorded at least 150 shots on goal in a season and finished with a shooting percentage higher than 23 percent.
At some point though that shooting percentage is going to drop down because, well, almost nobody is superhuman enough in today’s NHL to score that many goals with that sort of shot volume.
If he maintains a similar shot volume right over the remaining 65 games and simply shot at his normal career average (15 percent) that would still give him another 40 goals on top of what he has already scored this season. That would give him 57 goals, which would be the highest total in the NHL since Steven Stamkos scored 60 during the 2011-12 season.
If he only shot at 10 percent over the next 65 games (keep in mind the only time Kucherov shot lower than 14 percent in a season was his rookie season when he only appeared in 52 games) that would still be an additional 25 goals and give him 42 on the season. That total would have placed him second in the NHL a season ago, only two behind Sidney Crosby.
In other words, what we are looking at here with Kucherov this season is the potential for what could be one of the best goal-scoring seasons in recent NHL history.
Whether or not he can remain that sort of absurd pace over the next few months remains to be seen, but even if we see a slight regression he should still be in the driver’s seat to win his first goal-scoring crown, assuming he is able to stay healthy.
The Lightning look like the best team in the NHL right now and with Kucherov and Stamkos racking up points the way they are they have the two best offensive players in the league at the moment as well.