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Steven Stamkos-Nikita Kucherov reminiscent of NHL’s great duos

By Joe Smith
Lightning right wing Nikita Kucherov (86) celebrates a goal along with center Vladislav Namestnikov (90) and center Steven Stamkos (91) during Saturday's win over the Blue Jackets in Tampa. [DIRK SHADD | Times]

TAMPA — The scene plays out often at the end of a Lightning practice.

With most of the team at one end of the ice doing drills, captain Steven Stamkos and linemate Nikita Kucherov are at the opposite end. Just the two of them. They take turns setting up each other with one-timers on an empty net. They stick-handle around imaginary defenders in the slot.

It’s like they’re in their own little world. And this season, that’s exactly how it seems.

Stamkos, 27, and Kucherov, 24, have been a dominant duo, ranked Nos. 1 and 2 in scoring in the league (and named the NHL’s Nos. 1 and 2 stars of October). They’re just the fifth set of teammates in the past 25 years to each tally 20 points in the opening month, joining the likes of Mario Lemieux-Kevin Stevens and Eric Lindros-John LeClair.

The elite company they share is warranted, with many in the game saying Stamkos-Kucherov reminds them of some of the best combos of all time.

"Lafleur and Shutt," Hall of Fame coach Scotty Bowman said.

"Hull and Oates," Rangers broadcaster and former player Joe Micheletti said.

"Gretzky and Kurri," said Fox Sports Sun analyst Brian Engblom, a three-time Stanley Cup champion.

"Trottier and Bossy," said Lightning associate coach Rick Bowness.

Bowness noted what made all those pairs special was that they had a perfect partner as their third linemate, one who had the smarts and skills to complement them. So Stamkos and Kucherov’s versatile left wing, Vladislav Namestnikov, shouldn’t be overlooked.

"He’s playing the best hockey of his career," Bowness said.

But so are Stamkos and Kucherov, and the two are having a blast together.

"You look at the history of the league, the past few decades, there have been some fantastic duos," Bowness said. "And the way they’re playing right now, they’re right there."

Here are some traits that Stamkos-Kucherov share with the historic duos that makes them special.

Wayne Gretzky-Jari Kurri

Nobody will ever match Gretzky (top right), dubbed "The Great One" for good reason. He’s the best player of all time. It’s the way Stamkos and Kucherov read off each other and anticipate each other’s movements that has Engblom comparing them to the former Oilers stars. Stamkos said he and Kucherov share the same instincts and deceptiveness, and think about the game the same way.

Said Engblom: "It is the way they move, the way the guy who doesn’t have the puck moves, how they look at the ice. They don’t look at their partner. I remember (Kurri) saying that to me a long time ago: ‘I don’t watch Gretz; everybody else does. I look at the ice and where he’s going to go. That’s where there’s room.’?"

Mike Bossy-Bryan Trottier

Bossy and Trottier were key cogs in the Islanders dynasty in the 1980s, when they won four straight Stanley Cups. Bowness, a former Islanders coach who has been behind the bench for more than 2,000 NHL games, sees a little bit of that duo in Stamkos and Kucherov. "They’re a threat every time," Bowness said.e_SClBBrett Hull-Adam Oates

Both are in the Hall of Fame. Hull (top left) was one of the game’s best-ever snipers, and Oates was an all-time-great setup man. Stamkos and Kucherov aren’t the same type of players — each is a threat to score and create plays — but Micheletti sees a lot of Hull in Kucherov.

"Kucherov, to me, is as dangerous as Brett Hull," said Micheletti, a defenseman who played six seasons in the NHL and three in the World Hockey Association in the 1970s and ’80s. "They’re different players. The thing with Brett is that all he had to do is have his hands free. You’d think you were covering him, but if he has his hands free, that’s all he needed. He could score from anywhere, especially with someone setting him up.

"(Stamkos) is not the playmaker that Oates was, but Stamkos is more of an offensive threat to score goals than Adam Oates, which, if you’re defending, you’re going, ‘I can’t just defend against the pass, got to defend against the shot.’ "

Perhaps not coincidentally, Stamkos and Kucherov work with Oates, who is a consultant to many NHL players. Micheletti believes Kucherov is a top-five player in the league.

"He might be the best player in the league right now," Micheletti said.e_SClBGuy Lafleur-Steve Shutt

The Hall of Famers played together for a good part of a decade on Bowman’s dominant Canadiens teams in the 1970s. Bowman said Stamkos and Kucherov are similar in size to his former duo and both are threats to pass and shoot.

But Shutt said that what stands out to him about Stamkos-Kucherov is how they’ve adapted their games to each other’s. Kucherov leads the league in goals with 14. Stamkos, a two-time Rocket Richard Trophy winner as the league’s top goal scorer, has gladly taken on more of a playmaker role (18 of his 24 points this season are assists).

"Some elite players, you play with them, you know you have to play around them. They’re not changing," Shutt said. "Where with Stamkos and Kucherov, they have altered their games slightly to accommodate each other. And that’s where I see that’s very similar to what myself and Guy had when we played.

"I’ve watched them play, and you can see a little bit of magic in there."e_SClBJoe Smith can be reached at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.