Victor Hedman won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP last season. Deservedly so.
However, it was Nikita Kucherov who led all players in playoff scoring with 34 points in 25 games. Kucherov is on track to score more points in fewer games this post-season and is likely the leading candidate to take home MVP honours should the Tampa Bay Lightning repeat as Stanley Cup champions.
Following a three-point performance in Game 1, Kucherov now has 30 points in 19 playoff games. That’s seven more points than teammate Brayden Point who sits second in playoff scoring. How impressive is Kucherov’s offensive production? Well, in the past 30 years, only three players have averaged more points per game in at least as many playoff games as Kucherov has played this year.
Not a bad group of players to hang with.
While Kucherov scored a pair of goals in Game 1 against Montreal, it’s his playmaking ability that sets him apart from so many of his peers. In the playoffs, no player has more points than Kucherov has assists (23).
Kucherov’s uncanny ability to set teammates up in prime scoring areas drives his assist totals. Whether it’s on the power play or at even strength, Kucherov is consistently at or near the top of the list in slot pass completions. The home-plate, slot area is where three-quarters of all goals are scored, year-over-year. While not easy, the more passes a player can complete to teammates in this contested scoring area the more likely a player will be to generate assists. Kucherov is a master at timing and executing these passes and no other forward in the playoffs has come close to matching him in terms of completing passes into the slot.
Kucherov has almost twice the number of pass completions into the slot as any other forward in the playoffs. While the gap between Kucherov and everyone else is remarkable, it should not come as a surprise to see him at the top of this list. We are only a couple of years removed from Kucherov winning the scoring title and being named league MVP. In Kucherov’s Hart Trophy-winning season, he led the NHL in assists while completing a whopping 297 passes into the slot — 61 more than Connor McDavid who finished second in this category.
When you couple Kucherov’s genius playmaking ability with the elite shooting talent so often on the receiving end of his passes — Point and Steven Stamkos — you can understand why Kucherov has as many assists as he does in these playoffs.
Not only is Kucherov capable of making incredibly difficult passes to his linemates, but he is also able to slow the game down seemingly at will. A perfect example came in Game 2 against the New York Islanders where Kucherov was able to buy enough time for his linemates to get up the ice before hitting Ondrej Palat in stride for a wide-open, Grade A scoring chance.
And, of course, there is the power play. Tampa Bay’s power play is clicking at an outrageous 37.5 per cent in the playoffs. Some context, only the Stanley Cup champion New York Islanders from 1981 finished with a better playoff power play percentage among teams with at least 30 attempts. The Lightning power play runs through Kucherov on the right side of the ice. To say Kucherov has played a part in Tampa Bay’s power play success would be a massive understatement as he has factored in on 18 of the Lightning’s 21 power play goals. Kucherov leads all forwards in offensive zone pass completions, slot pass completions, and assists on the power play in the playoffs.
Kucherov’s ability to process the game at such a high level plays a major role in Tampa Bay’s success with the man advantage. Whether it’s snapping passes across the ice to Stamkos, pushing pucks to the point for Victor Hedman to do the same, or teeing up Point in the slot, Kucherov times and executes these passes with surgical precision.
The Lightning power play does a better job of generating one-timers from the slot than any other power play and this is a major driver of its success. The odds of a one-timer going in on a power play is roughly 15 per cent. A one-timer from the slot, approximately 21 per cent. These are league averages. When you consider Point, Stamkos, and Kucherov himself are taking a majority of these one-timers it’s no wonder the Lightning power play is running over opposing teams.
Kucherov has teed his teammates up for a one-timer on the power play 15 times in the playoffs and 12 of those have come from the slot — like the Point goal above. Both numbers are the most by any forward in the post-season.
Tampa Bay’s power play has so many weapons that trying to shut down one player just creates a four-on-three with other superstars who are more than capable of putting the puck in the back of the net. That said, if there is one player to attempt to disrupt on the Lightning power play, it would be Kucherov.
What we are witnessing is one of the great offensive playoff performances of the past couple decades. It is not unreasonable to believe Kucherov could score five more points in the Stanley Cup Final, which would put him at 35 points. If he does hit that number, Kucherov would be just the second player in the past 20 years to score 35 playoff points in a season. The other player to do it was countryman Evgeni Malkin who scored 36 points in 2009. Malkin was named the playoff’s most valuable player that season.
If Kucherov continues to pile up the points through the end of the Cup Final, there’s a good chance he will become just the third Russian player (Malkin and Alex Ovechkin) to win the Conn Smythe Trophy. When you consider he is doing all of this despite missing the entire regular season rehabbing from hip surgery, it makes Kucherov’s playoff performance that much more impressive.