Saturday, December 16, 2017
Tampa Bay Lightning

Kucherov develops into Lightning offensive force

WASHINGTON — When it comes to scoring, Lightning wing Nikita Kucherov offers the complete package.

Vision. Speed. High-end skill. Kucherov, 21, has the savvy to get open and the shot to finish. There's a reason Kucherov has six goals in his past six games, and a team-leading 12, after racking up 29 last season. "The confidence is there," Kucherov said.

But he has even more potential. Just ask one of the best scorers of this generation, Capitals star and fellow Russian Alex Ovechkin. "I think easily he can score 50," Ovechkin said.

Ovechkin should know. He has six 50-goal seasons and five Rocket Richard Trophies for being the league's top goal scorer. Only Ovechkin and Lightning captain Steven Stamkos have reached 50 goals twice since 2008-09, the feat becoming more rare in today's NHL.

If you believe that Stamkos, in the final year of his contract, will not be with the Lightning next season — and well-respected reporter Bob McKenzie of Canada's TSN TV network added himself to that growing list in a Wednesday column — then Kucherov would be the most likely to take over as Tampa Bay's go-to scorer.

Kucherov can be a restricted free agent this summer, and he's due a hefty raise over his $700,000 salary. Agent Scott Greenspun said he doesn't anticipate any negotiations until near the end of the season.

With Triplets linemates Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat hurt, and Stamkos mired in a 10-game goal drought, Kucherov has "pushed his game to another level," coach Jon Cooper said. Kucherov's play at both ends of the ice is a reason Tampa Bay has won eight of 12 heading into tonight's game with the Capitals. Stamkos said he has found himself deferring to, and trying to set up, linemate Kucherov, who "has the hot hand."

Said Washington coach Barry Trotz, "He's a hell of a player. Every time we play the Lightning, I come away from that game going, 'That guy is a top-end player.' He's a dynamic player. He's dangerous. When he's on the ice, something happens."

Kucherov isn't a one-trick pony, either. Since he was drafted in the second round in 2011 — when Lightning director of amateur scouting Al Murray thought he was better than eventual 2012 No. 1 overall pick Nail Yakupov — Kucherov has worked at improving his defense. Kucherov — who scored on the first shot of his first shift in his NHL debut, Nov. 25, 2013, a 5-0 win against the Rangers — he was a more complete player last season, tied for the league lead at plus-38.

It all came together last season for Kucherov, who felt more comfortable in his own skin and in the Lightning dressing room after getting a grasp of the English language (partly thanks to watching television shows such as Showtime's Shameless).

Kucherov, determined to be even better this season, worked on his speed during summer workouts in Southern California with the Islanders' Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolay Kulemin. Kucherov said his confidence has improved this season, as well his patience with the puck.

"Obviously he's getting better and better every year," Ovechkin said. "He's matured. And with the skill he has, he has the typical European skill, more of a Russian guy, it's always nice to watch him grow as a player."

Like Ovechkin, though to a lesser extent, the 5-foot-11, 178-pound Kucherov is willing to throw his body around, with Cooper saying two of the Lightning's bigger hits recently came from him. "He's got some bite to him," Trotz said. "He doesn't back off if you come at him physically."

Joked Johnson: "He's got that Russian in him."

Kucherov, on a line with fellow Russian Vladislav Namestnikov and Stamkos, said he hasn't had to adjust much not playing alongside Johnson and Palat. One thing Kucherov would like to take from Ovechkin is his aggressiveness in shooting. Kucherov said he learned as a kid in Moscow to pass to the open man, and that's been a hard habit to break, though he has 18 shots in this six-game run.

"You see Tyler Seguin, (Jamie) Benn, (Ovechkin), top-goal scorer guys, all they do is just shoot the puck," Kucherov said. "If you shoot the puck, you're going to score goals."

Maybe even 50.

ROSTER MOVES: The Lightning reassigned goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy to AHL Syracuse on Thursday so he can play this weekend and recalled Kristers Gudlevskis to back up Ben Bishop today and Sunday against the Senators. Though Cooper said wing Erik Condra (lower body) would be a game-time decision tonight, center Mike Angelidis was recalled. Johnson (undisclosed) and Palat (left ankle) skated on their own, but they were not expected to play this weekend, as wasn't wing Jonathan Drouin (lower body).

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