TAMPA — Nikita Kucherov sits back in his stall and smiles.
Laughs a little, too.
The Lightning star wing is talking — a lot. About his team, Steven Stamkos, his summer. That is news in itself for a 24-year-old Russian who often brooded while giving one- and two-word answers during media scrums late last season, which stunningly ended without a playoff appearance for Tampa Bay.
But during our recent 20-minute conversation, Kucherov sounded like a happy camper, a driven leader. And the mood change likely has a lot to do with the transformation Kucherov senses with the Lightning.
"You can see the team came in with a different look than we maybe came into last year," Kucherov said. "The way we're practicing, everybody is focused. They're hungry. You can see it."
That wasn't the case early last season, when the Stanley Cup favorite stumbled into a hole it couldn't dig out of. Not even Kucherov's MVP-caliber, 40-goal season could save the Lightning.
"When we didn't make the playoffs, it kind of felt empty," Kucherov said. "You're kind of watching the hockey and can't believe we're not there. It's a tough feeling."
Kucherov's frustration first came out in comments in April to Russia's Sovetsky Sport newspaper. In a translated version, they were harsh, including Kucherov quotes as saying that some teammates "got their money and stopped working."
Kucherov declined to reflect on those statements in our interview. He did address them in separate conversations with general manager Steve Yzerman and captain Steven Stamkos, who said they aren't an issue.
" 'Kuch' is a guy that cares a lot about the team, and he wants to win," Stamkos said. "You're never going to fault a guy for wanting to win or speaking the truth. Obviously, who knows what gets mixed up in translation with some of those interviews in Russia. That's in the past now.
"It wasn't that big of a deal internally than it was maybe made out to be in the media. Everyone in this (locker) room knows the type of person and player Kuch is. All he wants to do is win, and he backs it up."
Kucherov let his play do the talking during last year's career season, his average of 1.15 points per game trailing only Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby and league MVP Connor McDavid. Stamkos said Kucherov is a top-10, maybe top-five player in the game: "He can do it all. He wants to be that guy, which takes more than just a talent. It's a mind-set, and Kuch has that."
Kucherov, determined to be even better this season, spent most of the summer training in Tampa, installing synthetic ice in his garage so he could stickhandle.
"We all saw the skill from Day 1," Stamkos said. "The thing with Kuch is he always wants to get better. Everyone wants to be better, but it's whether you want to put the work in, and Kuch is. He's always the first guy on the ice and one of the last guys off. He's always working with his stick, always working with video, the stuff people don't get to see. They see the results, but the results are there because of his work ethic and determination to be a difference-maker.
"We had to lean on him heavily last year, and he proved he could do it. I'm looking forward to see what we can do as a group with Kucherov, knowing he can be an elite player. It's going to make us that much better."
Kucherov shared his thoughts with the Tampa Bay Times on a variety of topics. Excerpts:
Did you get a chance to reflect on what a special season it was for you individually?
With all the injuries and guys being out of the lineup, everybody had to step up and become mature players. I had more confidence. I had more time on the ice, more (power-play time), and some plays were going through me. I think for my game, it just helped me build a little confidence. I had the puck on my stick more. I had been playing on every line. I had to take more attention to myself, drawing a couple (defenders) to get guys open. It was a cool experience.
In what a ways can you be even better?
Everything. Shot, stickhandling, patience with the puck, the distance to fill between me and the (defender). It's really tough to do. We had a long summer, and I had time to work on it. I came into camp and I feel improvements a little bit on what I had been working on. (Former Lightning center Valtteri Filppula) was here; he was great at protecting the puck. I learned a lot from him how to protect the puck and control it in the corner.
You and Stamkos have talked about how much you love to play on a line together. Why does it work?
We see the ice the same way. We read the play; we talk a lot on the ice. He helps me a lot. He's a fast player, fun to play with. When you're playing, you want to have the puck on your stick to feel it. What I'm trying to do as much as I can is get him the puck, get him confident with it. When he's confident, he can be dangerous, as you know. He isn't scared to go in front of the net. When I first played with 'Stammer,' it happened like this (snapped his fingers).
You've said you learned a lot about playing with Stamkos by watching Marty St. Louis, right?
When I watched them, I kind of saw what St. Louis did and even how he taped his stick, what his routine was, the little things he did in practice. I didn't want to tell him, but it's cool, some little things we did the same. When they played together, I always looked at (Stamkos and St. Louis) and see how they supported each other, how they talked, how they moved the puck, where Marty was getting open. Not a lot of people see what Stammer does, the little things. Nobody pays attention to that. It's just a great experience to be able to be in the same room with Stammer and Marty. Now I'm just trying to look up to St. Louis, how he played and be even better. I'm trying to do my best.
How much fun would it be to play with Stamkos all season?
It would be lovely (smiled).
How has Stamkos looked?
He seems great. He moves his feet fast. And you can just see how he loves the game, he wants to play, wants to go there. He works so hard. The best players, they're the guys with incredible work ethic. Being able to play with him, he just pushes you to want to do better than him. We just push each other.
Is this the year you all put it together for another Cup run?
You don't want to say, "This is our year." There are 30 other teams; they're all good. Sidney Crosby, all the great players. They're all going to say, "It's our year." We have a great group of guys, great team. And I like the way we practice; the guys work their (rear ends) off. I know it's going to be hard, but if we stay consistent all year, no ups and downs, if we do that, I think we have a big chance.
What do you think of new defenseman Mikhail Sergachev?
He's a great player. You can see he likes to play with the puck; he dangles at the blue line. And that's what I like. Not many (defensemen) can do that. He's got that confidence to do that. The more he's here, the more he's going to learn a lot from the guys — good veterans like (Victor Hedman), (Dan) Girardi, (Anton) Stralman. He's going to be a really good player. I'm excited to have him.
Was it still tough to lose Jonathan Drouin, even if you got Sergachev in the trade with Montreal?
'Jo is an unbelievable player, great person. So much fun we had. We didn't play a lot together, only got a chance to play on the power play. Just a great player. It (stinks), but I guess it's a business and you've got to suck it up sometimes. We've got Sergachev, who is a great player. We got Girardi and (Chris Kunitz, both in free agency). We're happy with that.
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.