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How many goals will Nikita Kucherov score this season?

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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.

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Canadiens reward Antti Niemi with extension after turnaround

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There weren’t many positives in Montreal during the 2017-18 regular season, but Antti Niemi‘s play was certainly one of them. On Tuesday, the team announced that the veteran has signed a one-year, $950, 000 deal. He was scheduled to become a free agent on July 1st.

Niemi’s journey to the Canadiens organization was a bumpy one. After being bought out by the Dallas Stars last offseason, he signed a one-year contract with the Pittsburgh Penguins. He started the year as Matt Murray‘s backup, but he quickly found himself on waivers in October after a string of poor performances (he had an 0-3 record, a 7.50 goals-against-average and a .797 save percentage during his time with the Pens).

The Florida Panthers decided to put in a waiver claim on the 34-year-old netminder, but not much changed in his play during his brief time in the Sunshine State. He suited up in just two games with the Panthers before going back on waivers in November.

With Carey Price out of the lineup, the Canadiens decided to roll the dice on Niemi and that’s when things changed for the better. By reuniting with his former goalie coach in Chicago, Stephane Waite, Niemi was able to get his career back on the rails. The pair won a Stanley Cup together in 2010 and, again, they showed that they form a great partnership.

In 19 games with an injury-riddled Canadiens team, Niemi had a 7-5-4 record with a 2.46 goals-against-average and a .929 save percentage. Those numbers are remarkable when you consider just how bad the Canadiens were in 2017-18.

As great of a story as this is, this new one-way contract doesn’t guarantee that he’ll be one of the two goalies on the NHL roster come October. Carey Price will be the undisputed starter going into camp, while Niemi and Charlie Lindgren battle for the backup job. Both players are on one-way deals, so the Habs will be paying one of their AHL goalies a lot of money no matter who heads down to AHL Laval next fall. Both contracts can totally be buried in the minors without counting toward the salary cap.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Where will Mark Hunter go after leaving Maple Leafs?

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The hockey world hasn’t heard from Maple Leafs assistant general manager Mark Hunter since the team promoted Kyle Dubas to GM last week. Well, on Tuesday, the team announced that the two sides have mutually agreed to part ways.

“Following extensive discussions with Mark, he and the Toronto Maple Leafs have mutually agreed to part ways,” said Leafs president Brendan Shanahan. “I’d like to sincerely thank Mark for everything he’s done for this organization over the last four years and I wish him nothing but the best in the future.”

Many speculated that Hunter wasn’t happy about being passed over for the general manager opening that eventually went to Dubas, and this kind of confirms that theory. During his tenure with the Leafs, Hunter was in charge of the pro scouting, amateur scouting and player evaluation. He played a big part in Toronto’s rapid rebuild.

So now, Hunter is free to pursue other opportunities outside of the Leafs organization. But according to TSN hockey insider Bob McKenzie, he can’t join another team until after the NHL Entry Draft and free agency. That seems fair considering he has a lot of intel into Toronto’s off-season plans and because he’s departing with term left on his contract.

It’ll be interesting to see if Hunter decides to join forces with former Leafs GM Lou Lamoriello, who officially became the Islanders president of hockey ops on Tuesday morning. After all, current Isles GM Garth Snow is on thin ice, so there could be an opening for a new general manager in the near future. Assuming they move on from Snow, Hunter could be in line to get the job if he decides to go there. If Snow sticks around, he could still join the team in a different capacity.

If things don’t work out with the Islanders, Hunter could always join another NHL team with a front-office opening. Getting a GM gig might be a little difficult considering there aren’t any more openings right now, but that doesn’t mean he can’t get a good gig elsewhere. The Montreal Canadiens have already made some changes to their management group by allowing Rick Dudley to move on to Carolina. Could Hunter be a fit there? It would be a heck of a statement for him to go from Toronto to Montreal.

Of course, if Hunter doesn’t like the NHL offers on the table, there’s also a possibility that he could return to the OHL with the London Knights. When the Leafs came calling in 2014, Hunter was serving as part owner and general manager of the Knights (he remains a co-owner of the team with his brother, Dale, and Basil McRae).

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Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Islanders hire Lou Lamoriello as president of hockey operations (Update)

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It’s expected this week that the New York Islanders will officially announce the hiring of Lou Lamoriello to run their hockey operation department, according to Arthur Staple of The Athletic.

It’s unclear at the moment what specific role the 75-year-old Lamoriello will have within the organization. It’s possible he takes over the role of president of hockey operations or general manager, or potentially both. His son, Chris, is the Islanders’ assistant GM.

Last month, the Toronto Maple Leafs announced that Lamoriello would not return as their GM after three seasons at the helm.

Staple also confirmed a Hockey30 report that Lamoriello met with Islanders captain John Tavares last week ahead of this move. Tavares is set to become an unrestricted free agent only July 1.

There are many questions to be answered as we wait for the Islanders to announce this move. First, what does this mean for the beards of Nick Leddy and Andrew Ladd, as well as the mustache of Cal Clutterbuck?

Next, where does current GM Garth Snow stand? He’s been running the show since 2006 and has a contract for at least four more seasons. The team has made the playoffs only four times during his tenure and advanced out of the first round once. The fan base demanded change once this season went off the rails, with billboards purchased in Brooklyn calling for Snow’s firing. During an end-of-season press conference in April, Islanders co-owner Jon Ledecky said Snow and head coach Doug Weight would be staying for now, but that he would be “evaluating all aspects of our hockey operations.”

The next question is the biggest and that has to do with Tavares. He’s said time and time again that he wants to re-sign, but hasn’t inked an extension and hasn’t given any indication what factors would sway him one way or the other. A new arena on Long Island is coming. But is this change in management and whatever Lamoriello told him in their chat enough to convince him to not explore free agency and commit to staying with the franchise? Only time will tell. But this change could be a good first step forward for the franchise.

UPDATE: The Islanders made the news official on Tuesday morning, with Lamoriello getting the title of president of hockey operations. “He will have full authority over all hockey matters with the organization” was also noted in the press release. Farewell, Garth?

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

PHT Morning Skate: How Reaves became a playoff hero; Which non-playoff teams can make 2019 postseason?

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• The fact that the Vegas Golden Knights are in the Stanley Cup Final is good for all hockey fans and it’s a great story. (Vice Sports)

• No American team has sold for merchandise than the Golden Knights. Stores couldn’t keep the Western Conference Champion hats and t-shirts on the shelves. (Vegas Review-Journal)

• Penguins GM Jim Rutherford was furious that Caps forward Tom Wilson refused to fight Jamie Oleksiak after Wilson broke Zach Aston-Reese‘s jaw with a hit. “When Jamie challenged Wilson, he couldn’t run quick enough to get away from him.” (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

Ryan Reaves has had to adjust his game to stick around in the NHL. Things haven’t always worked out for him, but he eventually became a hero for the Golden Knights in the third round. (ESPN)

• If the Golden Knights were to win the Stanley Cup, Vegas casinos would lose a ton of money. (MLive.com)

• Hockey Graphs looks at whether or not the NHL has become more competitive by analyzing advanced statistics between 2007-08 and 2017-18. (Hockey Graphs)

• The St. Louis Blues’ home rink will have a new name going into next season. For the next 15 years, the arena will be named “Enterprise Center”. (NHL.com/Blues)

• Down Goes Brown looks at which non-playoff teams could make it to the postseason next year and which ones could even get to the conference final. (Sportsnet)

• Preds defenseman Ryan Ellis has one year remaining on his current deal. What will his next contract look like? Based on some comparables, expect him to earn at least $5.5 million. (On the Forecheck)

• A young boy who suffered serious injuries in a school bus crash received an incredible gift from the New York Rangers that included a stick signed by Henrik Lundqvist. (NBC New York)

• The IIHF has voted to allow both the men’s and women’s Chinese hockey teams to take part in the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. (China.org)

• Have you ever dreamed of being an NHL scout? Well, take a look at what scouts look for when assessing potential talent. (The Hockey News)

• Anaheim’s farm team, the San Diego Gulls, have signed head coach Dallas Eakins to a multi-year contract extension. (San Diego Gulls)

• Despite struggling at the end of the season, Devan Dubnyk had another solid year for the Minnesota Wild in 2017-18. (Hockey Wilderness)

• Up top, check out the highlights from last night’s game between the Capitals and Lightning.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.