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Nikita Kucherov can no longer be ignored in NHL’s best player debate

McDavid vs. Crosby has a new challenger in the Tampa Bay Lightning winger.

Tampa Bay Lightning v Pittsburgh Penguins - Game Five Photo by Matt Kincaid/Getty Images

For much of the past year, the hockey world had operated under the assumption that the title of “NHL’s best player” was a two-man race. It was either Connor McDavid, the young wunderkind who won last season’s Hart Trophy, or Sidney Crosby, the future Hall of Famer who led the Penguins to back-to-back Stanley Cups.

McDavid vs. Crosby had become one of the NHL’s most interesting debates, for good reason. They both play the same position, and put up some of the best numbers in the league. McDavid might be the fastest player in hockey history. Crosby might be the most well-rounded. Even an Erik Karlsson defender would admit the conversation focused on those two forwards.

But now we’re nearly midway through the 2017-18 season, and a new challenger has emerged. The conversation surrounding who is the best hockey player in the world can no longer be limited to just two names. Nikita Kucherov has been too good over the last year for that to happen.

For all the effusive praise directed toward McDavid and Crosby, it’s the Tampa Bay Lightning winger who leads the NHL in points this season. Teamed up on a line with Steven Stamkos and Vladislav Namestnikov, he’s emerged as a scoring winger of the highest caliber. There are a lot of ways to measure performance, and Kucherov looks good in pretty much all of them.

He may not be the NHL’s best player, but he’s become part of the conversation.

Why Kucherov deserves to be in the conversation

Let’s start with raw production. Kucherov is currently tied for the NHL lead with 23 goals, and he’s the sole leader in points with 46. Here are Kucherov’s leaguewide rankings in a variety of statistics since the start of the 2016-17 season:

Goals: 1st (63)
Assists: 11th (68)
Points: 2nd (131)
Even strength goals: T-1st (43)
Power play goals: 2nd (20)

Only McDavid has more points than Kucherov over the past 15 months, and only Alex Ovechkin has as many even strength goals. Overall, Kucherov has scored five more goals than any player in the league during that lengthy time frame.

There’s also more to his game than scoring.

"He sees what's going to happen next in the game before the player he's going against sees it," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said last month, via NHL.com. "It's impressive. Like, he's such a sneaky little forechecker because he knows what the defender is going to do before the defender knows what he's going to do. That's why he often comes away with pucks, because he's so good at that."

Digging a bit deeper, Kucherov continues to stand out as an elite player. His Corsi Relative of five percent, which means the Lightning’s Corsi is five percent higher with him on the ice than off it, is top 30 among NHL forwards since the start of last season. He’s also first in points, goals, and primary points per 60 minutes, according to Corsica.

In terms of Game Score, which boils a player’s contributions down to a single number, he’s second behind McDavid since the start of last season. He’s also top 15 in expected goals differential, top 20 in expected goals percentage, and top 30 in individual expected goals.

Your mileage may vary with these various statistics, but they paint a consistent picture. "Now, the hockey world is seeing we have a star," Cooper said.

The flaws in Kucherov’s resume

Now it’s only fair to point out the reasons that Kucherov might not deserve to be part of this conversation. They largely focus on his circumstances, as the Lightning have done an exceptional job putting him in a position to succeed.

The most obvious aspect of that is his linemates, Stamkos and Namestikov. Stamkos has long been one of the most talented players in the NHL, and he’s returned to form this season after missing time due to injury. It’s likely no coincidence that Kucherov has taken his production to the next level now that he’s built up chemistry with Stamkos.

There are other ways that Cooper helps his superstar winger out. Kucherov sees more zone starts on the offensive end than the defensive end, and he feasts on the power play, where he’s leaned on heavily as part of one of the league’s best units. The winger never kills penalties, either, keeping him fresh for the rest of the game.

So the Lightning are consistently doing things to put Kucherov in a position to produce that can’t necessarily be said for a No. 1 center like McDavid. They’ve also surrounded him with superior talent, not just up front but on the back end with Victor Hedman, Mikhail Sergachev, and Anton Stralman.

But lots of players are put in similar circumstances and don’t come close to doing what Kucherov has done.

A worthy challenger

It’s difficult for a winger to match the value brought by an elite center like McDavid or Crosby, but Kucherov has done that. He’s been the league’s best goal scorer for the past year-plus, and proven that he belongs in any discussion of the NHL’s top players. Even if McDavid is still the rightful heir to the throne, Kucherov is showing that there will at least be some competition for that title.

It’s an incredible story given that Kucherov, unlike McDavid or Crosby, was not a No. 1 overall pick. He fell to No. 58 overall in 2011, and recorded just 18 points in 52 games as a 20-year-old rookie.

But Kucherov has regularly elevated his game to new levels since then, and now he’s elevated it enough to be an MVP candidate.