There is a lot of excitement surrounding the Tampa Bay Lightning. And why not? There is a perennial MVP candidate, a breakout Norris Trophy candidate (who is injured but will return), two Calder Trophy nominees from last year, a great free agent defenseman signing, and a Vezina-caliber goaltender. Yes, there is a lot of excitement surrounding the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Nikita Kucherov is flying under the radar because of the talent that surrounds the team. This is despite the fact that Kucherov’s 17 points is fourth on the team so far this year, and just one point behind Steven Stamkos’s line mate Valtteri Filppula.
Kucherov was a second round pick for Tampa Bay back in 2011. Kucherov, from the span of 2010-2012, did play 27 games in the Kontinental Hockey League with CSKA Moscow. He spent most of his time in Russia in their Junior league, but did get a good taste of men’s professional hockey before he ever stepped foot in an North American rink.
After the 2012 season, Kucherov was brought over to play in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League to get used to the “North American” style of play. While that may be a bit overrated, he did get a season to acclimate to the pro-style rinks, as opposed to the international rinks that have much more space. By the time Kucherov reported to the American Hockey League for the 2013-2014 season, he had half a season of pro experience, and a year in the North American rinks. Compared to many rookies, Kucherov’s game was tailored for pro hockey by the time he reached the pro ranks.
For those that want to read Kucherov’s prospect profile from Hockey’s Future, it’s right here. The two words that sticks out from their analysis are “game breaker.” Kucherov is exactly that – a player who, at the blink of an eye, can snap a shot past any goaltender on the planet, or race past most defensemen. His release, and his nose for the net, could make him an elite goal scoring talent in the future.
This is how good Kucherov was last year in a minimal role: Kucherov was tied with Zach Parise and Daniel Sedin in goals per 60 minutes at 5 on 5 (0.61). Both Sedin and Parise play a different role, but it’s a good point of reference for just how good Kucherov was in third line minutes for his rookie year.
This is how good Kucherov has been this year in minimal role: Kucherov is tied for fourth among all NHL forwards in 5 on 5 points this year with 15. The only players ahead of him are Filip Forsberg, Jakub Voracek, and line mate Tyler Johnson. That’s not a per-minute rate, that’s total points. Kucherov has cracked 16 minutes in a game just twice so far this season.
Beyond the points, Tampa Bay is dominant with Kucherov on the ice. So far this year, the team controls 58.3-percent of shot attempts with him on the ice (via Hockey Analysis). In fact, Kucherov leads the Lightning in CorsiRelative, which means that of all the players on their team, Tampa Bay is at their puck possession best when Kucherov is on the ice. It hasn’t been a cakewalk, either, as Kucherov has the fifth-worst zone starts among regular Lightning forwards. It means that he gets a lot of starts in the defensive zone, and is still destroying the competition. That’s frightening for the rest of the teams in the NHL considering he’s just 21 years old.
I just glossed over it earlier, but it’s Kucherov’s shot that really separated him as a youngster. Now that he’s growing into his own, the other skills are catching up (if not already caught up), but it’s still his shot that makes him a very special player. He’s combined that shot with speed and hockey IQ, and it’s leading to a special player. Here are the three goals from his hat trick against Arizona this year, and note how all three are very different:
Goal 1 – Kucherov helped set up the play at the blue line before this gif starts, and goes to the side of the net. Note how he disappears behind Oliver Ekman-Larsson, and then *poof* he’s in front of the net redirecting a goal:
Goal 2 – Tampa Bay looks to get a 2 on 4 break with Johnson/Kucherov, that is until Kucherov blows past Arizona defenseman Connor Murphy and turns it into a 2 on 1. Notice that Kucherov started (at the red line) a step behind Murphy, and beat him to the net by more than a stick length:
Goal 3 – Kucherov is a smaller player, so he can’t stand in front of the net like Patric Hornqvist and get beat on. He stands in front of the net when it looks like a shot might come in, and when it doesn’t, he leaks behind Kyle Chipchura (number 24) to the mid-slot and gets off one of his patented one-time shots:
Three goals, three different ways, all in the same game. Those goals showed off his hockey IQ, his speed, and his shot. Kucherov is a player who might only be the third- or fourth-most talented forward on his own team right now, but is a star in the making. He should be creeping into top-75 lists for keeper/dynasty leagues.
*Some information courtesy of Hockey Analysis, Hockey Reference, Hockey’s Future, and NHL.com