BRANDON — Nikita Kucherov didn't have to say a word to explain his emotions when scoring a goal. His smile conveyed it all.
"An unbelievable feeling," he added for emphasis.
It's the same with an assist.
"I don't know how to say it," the Lightning prospect said Sunday between workouts at the team's development camp at the Ice Sports Forum. "I'm just proud for the team; a lot of effort for the team."
But that is only part of what he needs to reach the NHL. That is why last season, his first in the junior Quebec league, Kucherov, 20, added a defensive element to his game that Al Murray, the Lightning's director of amateur scouting, said solidified the right wing's status as "one of the elite players in his age group."
He's a player Tampa Bay's brass believes has the potential to be a significant contributor to the big club.
Never heard of Kucherov, who is expected to play next season for AHL Syracuse? No surprise.
There wasn't much buzz when he was drafted 58th overall in 2011. He did not come to North America from his native Russia until last season, and right shoulder surgery in May kept him from skating in last year's prospects camp.
But 29 goals and 63 points in 33 games last season — 26 goals, 57 points in 27 games after a November trade to Rouyn-Noranda from Quebec — were like a flare.
"His game took a huge step," Murray said. "He's committed to working hard on the ice and on his conditioning."
Credit Rouyn-Noranda coach Andre Tourigny, Kucherov said: "He talked with me a lot. He showed me how Tampa Bay played in the defensive zone, the forecheck and backcheck."
Kucherov also picked Tourigny's brain after games and practices. They studied video. Kucherov sent text messages to his coach whenever he had questions.
The result: a reworking of how Kucherov understands and plays the game, and how it applies to his ultimate goal.
"If you want to play in the NHL, you have to improve your game in the defensive zone," said Kucherov, who last season was a combined plus-17. "If you play in the defensive zone well, it's like you take a step up."
Kucherov stepped up in the classroom as well, studying English three hours a day five days a week over three months, he said.
"That he picked it up in one year is pretty impressive," said fellow Lightning prospect Tanner Richard. "It just goes to show you he's willing to learn, to adapt to everything, not just hockey."
Richard and Kucherov will room together this summer in Montreal, where they will train and where Kucherov, 5 feet 11, 171 pounds, knows he must add weight and muscle.
The foundation, though, seems solid. Kucherov had nine goals, 24 points in 14 playoff games for Rouyn-Noranda. He had five goals, eight points in seven games for Russia at the world junior championship.
There also is that newfound appreciation for defense.
"Oh, yes," Kucherov said when asked if he gets the same thrill from playing defense as scoring a goal.
"If you do some good positioning in the defensive zone and take a puck away from another player, you feel great."
He said that with a smile as well.
Notes: Center Valtteri Filppula's five-year, $25 million contract pays $4 million next season; $5 million in 2014-15; $6 million in 2015-16; and $5 million in 2016-17 and 2017-18.
Damian Cristodero can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @LightningTimes.