Why Nikita Kucherov has the best case for the Hart Trophy

This might be the most "no wrong answers" MVP race in recent memory. But one answer is more right than the other ones. Mark LoMoglio/NHLI via Getty Images

Nikita Kucherov of the Tampa Bay Lightning deserves to win the Hart Trophy as the NHL's most valuable player this season.

The beautiful thing about making that kind of declarative statement about the 2023-24 MVP race? This might be the most "no wrong answers" Hart Trophy debate in recent memory.

  • Does Colorado Avalanche center Nathan MacKinnon have an MVP case after a season of establishing career benchmarks and multiple point-per-game streaks and wowing us with his full-throttle skating? Absolutely.

  • Does Toronto Maple Leafs star Auston Matthews have a case after posting the highest single-season goal total since 1992-93 and leading the team with his 200-foot game? Absolutely.

  • Does Edmonton Oilers star Connor McDavid have a case after becoming only the fourth player in NHL history to tally 100 assists in a season, and resurrecting his team after a disastrous start? Absolutely.

Forwards Artemi Panarin (New York Rangers) and David Pastrnak (Boston Bruins) have cases. So do defensemen Roman Josi (Nashville Predators) and Quinn Hughes (Vancouver Canucks). So does Winnipeg Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck, although he'd have to overcome the annual "goalies have their own award" and "a goalie could win MVP every season" biases from voters.

A member of the Professional Hockey Writers Association could cast a vote for any of these players and it would be viewed as reasonable, no matter how much social media shaming arrives from the other candidates' constituencies. Again, there aren't any real "wrong answers" this season in the MVP race.

But Nikita Kucherov is the most correct one.

KUCHEROV ENTERS THE final game of the Lightning's season at home against the Maple Leafs with 142 points in 80 games, putting him in position to win the Art Ross Trophy as the league's top point producer for the second time. His previous win was in 2018-19 with 128 points, the same season he won his first and only Hart Trophy.

Among the players on that particular Lightning team: J.T. Miller, Yanni Gourde, Ryan McDonagh, Ondrej Palat, Alex Killorn and Tyler Johnson. Through trades, cap constraints and the expansion draft, the Lightning lost much of that stellar supporting cast -- the backbone of Stanley Cup wins in 2020 and 2021. This Lightning squad had by far the shallowest depth of any under coach Jon Cooper. It got even shallower when defenseman Mikhail Sergachev went out with a broken leg after 34 games.

Their depth was always reliable in previous seasons. So was goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy. The Vezina Trophy winner was out until Nov. 24 after a microdiscectomy to address a lumbar disk herniation. He hasn't been himself all season since returning, posting a .900 save percentage and a very uncharacteristic negative-10.84 goals saved above expected, per Stathletes.

All of this is to say that the Lightning would be tabulating their draft lottery odds right now were it not for Kucherov. He is the reason they're a playoff team.

That's not hyperbole. That's quantifiable:

  • Kucherov leads the NHL in percentage of team goals (50.35) in which he has a point through 80 games. MacKinnon was second (46.46%) and McDavid third (45.67%). Kucherov is attempting to become the seventh player in NHL history to factor into over 50% of his team's goals in a season, joining McDavid, Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and Bobby Orr.

  • Kucherov is one assist away from joining that same elite company in another category: 100 assists in a single season. Sure, McDavid reached 100 first on Monday night, which took some of the shine off the accomplishment, but Kucherov has done it as a winger, which is a first. Kucherov now holds the NHL record for most assists in a single season by a winger, breaking the previous mark of 87 he shared with Jaromir Jagr.

  • As of Monday, Kucherov had the largest gap between a team's leading and second-leading scorers. He's 53 points ahead of center Brayden Point. The second-biggest gap is between the Rangers' Panarin and Vincent Trocheck (43 points) and the third-biggest is between the Bruins' Pastrnak and Brad Marchand (42 points). This metric has been used by voters in previous Hart races to illustrate "value." Think of it this way: If the scoring canyon between Kucherov and Point were that of an individual player, it would be the equivalent to a Tyler Toffoli, Michael Bunting or Martin Necas entering Tuesday night's games.

  • Kucherov has had one of the most remarkable road scoring seasons in NHL history. Kucherov went scoreless in only three of the Lightning's 20 road wins. His 75 points on the road leads all NHL scorers, and is 15 points clear of second-place Panarin. Kucherov's 54 assists on the road are the highest total since Gretzky's 57 in 1990-91. He's just two shy of McDavid's mark of 77 last season, when the Oilers star won the Hart Trophy.

DESPITE THESE NUMBERS, I'm cognizant of the knocks on Kucherov's candidacy.

Some are legit: The Athletic's Dom Luszczyszyn has called out Kucherov's five-on-five play in relation to that of his MVP-worthy peers, and wrote that "his biggest issue at five-on-five [is] his defensive ability," especially when compared to someone like Matthews.

But it was also noted by Luszczyszyn that Kucherov plays on the most porous defensive team among the candidates, too. While plus/minus should never be used in a serious discussion of hockey stats, it can offer a general snapshot of a player or team. In 80 games, Kucherov is a plus-10, second on the Lightning behind Victor Hedman (plus-18).

Tampa Bay has only four players better than a plus-5. The Avalanche have 10. The Leafs have 15.

Other criticisms are ... less legit. I've heard that Matthews flirting with 70 goals is more impressive than hitting 100 assists because there are "secondary assists" but not "secondary goals." It's a fair point, but it doesn't really apply to Kucherov or McDavid: over 60% of their assists are primary. Also, they don't make the scoring rules, at last check.

Then there's the empty-net points argument.

Did you know Kucherov set an NHL record this season? Through 80 games, Kucherov has tallied 14 points with his opponents' net empty. That's the highest total of empty-net points in a single season in NHL history.

Some have used this as a cudgel against Kucherov's point totals, claiming empty-net points are inferior. But all it tells me is that despite Kucherov's alleged defensive deficiencies, Cooper feels comfortable enough to have him out on the ice when the net is empty and the opponent is desperate. And that Kucherov has helped the Lightning close out a good share of games.

(To be honest, I had a Pavlovian response of disgust when I heard that "empty netters" argument. I still remember when it was used to take Washington Capitals star Alex Ovechkin down a notch, before the hockey world decided en masse that it was OK because it boosted his numbers in the Gretzky record chase. At least that's my theory.)

Of course, when discussing Kucherov's critics, we have to address the surly elephant in the room: The impression that he left at this year's All-Star Game in Toronto.

You may recall Kucherov getting boos from the fans and jeers from the media for dogging his way through a stickhandling event at the skills competition. Kucherov hasn't always been a teddy bear with the media or a saint on the ice. Kyle Okposo, one of the most universally liked players in the NHL, called Kucherov "a terrific player, but he's dirty as well," which is as close to a scathing critique as you'll get from Kyle Okposo.

I hope none of this factors into the Hart Trophy voting. It's not a popularity contest. Or at least it shouldn't be.

SO KUCHEROV DESERVES to win MVP. I'm not convinced he will win MVP.

MacKinnon had 77% of the first-place votes in ESPN's NHL Awards Watch for April, the final canvassing of actual voters before the ballots are cast. Even if some of that support wavers as other players reach statistical milestones, it probably won't be enough to erode his lead.

There's also an argument for MacKinnon that can't be made for MVP aspirants like Kucherov, Matthews or McDavid: The Avalanche star has never won the MVP before. So it's "his turn," especially in the eyes of some voters who feel he should have won in 2017-18, when Taylor Hall's late-season heroics for the New Jersey Devils earned him the Hart.

Simplistic as that might sound, the notion of "spreading the wealth" does factor into awards voting. There has been only one player to win the Hart Trophy in consecutive seasons during this century: Ovechkin from 2007-08 to 2008-09, scoring 121 goals over those two seasons.

If the voters decide MacKinnon deserves his Hart Trophy, that's fine. Same for Matthews or McDavid or Panarin or Pastrnak or Quinn Hughes or Josi or Hellebuyck. I wish I could spit fire and vitriol about one of these players being counterfeit or an abhorrent choice -- maybe if one of them finished a point outside the playoffs, I'd get there.

But like I said, it's a tribute to their performances and where the game is today that there are only right answers this season.

Mine is Kucherov, for the reasons stated here. It's a special season from a special player, and the Lightning wouldn't be anywhere near the Stanley Cup playoffs without him.