Lightning star Nikita Kucherov looks better than ever early in 2023-24 NHL season

Tampa Bay Lightning star Nikita Kucherov is one of the most decorated players of his generation, boasting a Hart Trophy, an Art Ross Trophy and two Stanley Cups to go along with his endless swagger. Despite that impressive history, Kucherov is playing better right now than he ever has, and that should be enough to frighten the hell out of his upcoming opponents.

Kucherov is on pace for a 63-goal, 139-point campaign and while pace statistics can be manipulated, he did play in all 82 games last season, so it’s not unreasonable to suggest he’ll be an ironman of sorts for Tampa Bay once again. At the time of this filing, Kucherov leads the league in points and the rest of his statistical profile surmises that he should be firmly in line for his second Hart Trophy in a race against either Vancouver Canucks superstar of your choosing, Elias Pettersson or Thatcher Demko.

Kucherov is also ranked first in shots and individual scoring chances at 5-on-5, tied for second at 5-on-5 points, while shooting just a tick above 11% at 5-on-5, although that mark moves to 17% in all situations. Put simply, there’s a good chance Kucherov is due to continue at this scorching rate, given that he’s shooting below his career 14.6% mark at 5-on-5.

This hasn’t been a fluke or a case of a top-tier offensive player merely getting hot. Kucherov remains a gamebreaking talent, one of the league’s top five players on any given night, even if that bucks against consensus opinion.

In the interest of fairness, we have to examine Kucherov’s defensive flaws. He is currently ranked 443rd out of 509 qualified skaters (at least 100 minutes played) in expected goals against per 60, a metric that generally qualifies a player’s individual defensive impact.

He’s not alone, however. Brayden Point, Kucherov’s long-time running mate, ranks 447th. Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay’s captain, ranks 498th. The Vegas Golden Knights‘ elite defensive pairing of Alec Martinez and Alex Pietrangelo are ranked below Kucherov as well. This metric also doesn’t take into account the quality of opponents faced. And does it really matter all too much if Kucherov has been the NHL’s most impactful offensive player thus far?

Now that we’ve sufficiently turned Kucherov into a math problem, we’re going to get into the fun stuff. And what has become apparent is that not only are Kucherov’s slap shot and snap shot lethal weapons that should scare opposing defenders, the very threat of his shot opens up chances for his teammates.

Lightning star Nikita Kucherov is up to his usual heroics early in the 2023-24 NHL season. (Photo by Mark LoMoglio/NHLI via Getty Images) (NHLI via Getty Images)

Kucherov was a menace in the first period of Monday’s game against the Toronto Maple Leafs, registering two goals and two primary assists. Although Toronto won 6-5 in overtime, the 2019 MVP could’ve registered 10 points were it not for Joseph Woll’s heroics off the bench for the Maple Leafs.

It may not seem like a lot here, but Kucherov’s fake slap shot freezes Toronto’s defense ever so slightly, giving Victor Hedman enough room to beat Woll off the rush. Kucherov motions that he’s going to shoot, so John Tavares initially tries to cut off the potential shooting lane. T.J. Brodie is in good position and is ideally suited to clear any rebound attempt. In the same motion, Kucherov wires the pass over to Hedman, who makes no mistake placing it past Brodie and Woll, both of whom stretched out too late to block the shot path.

If you pore through the endless scouting profiles of Connor Bedard, the easiest part of his game to identify is his all-world release, which he can get off from everywhere. Kucherov is the master of the same quality. He can shoot from virtually anywhere and he can do more with an inch of space than virtually any other player on the planet.

Kucherov’s first goal against the Maple Leafs is simple enough; he calls for the puck off the rush and no one closes out on him. William Nylander is standing flat-flooted directly in front of him but you can’t just face guard Kucherov, you have to actively stick to his body or else he’ll carve you alive as a playmaker — or as a shooter, as evidenced here.

Kucherov’s second goal against the Maple Leafs is a lot more simple, although it drew an audible “whoa” from parts of the crowd. Woll could’ve been given 100 chances to stop it, and it would have gone in 100 times. Kucherov is a nightmare on the power play, he’s afforded all the space in the world and Hedman returns the favor from earlier in the period.

We’re not just picking on the Maple Leafs. This next goal against the Montreal Canadiens may be the most impressive example from this season that displays Kucherov’s ability to score from everywhere inside the offensive blue line.

During the opening shift of Tuesday’s game in Montreal, Kucherov falls down, recovers, then Point weaves inside the middle of the ice, dishes the puck off to Brandon Hagel and continues cutting towards the slot. Hagel whips a cross-ice feed over to Kucherov, who whips a one-timer almost like a perfectly executed tennis serve.

Kucherov is statistically trending toward his best season ever in a first-ballot Hall of Fame-worthy career. He is the leading MVP candidate as the Lightning have overcome a slow start to sit second in the Atlantic Division, withstanding the loss of all-world goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy.

Kucherov is better than ever and few players make hockey seem more fun in the process.



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