TAMPA — When captain Steven Stamkos got hurt in mid November, you knew it'd be a huge blow to the Lightning.
Tampa Bay has struggled without its top scorer and leader, going 12-16-5 since Stamkos' knee surgery. It is six points out of a playoff spot at the All-Star break.
But where would the Lightning be without wing Nikita Kucherov?
Kucherov, 23, helped carry Tampa Bay in the immediate aftermath of Stamkos' injury. And though he hasn't been as productive in recent weeks, he deservedly gets his first All-Star Game appearance Sunday in Los Angeles.
"All you hear about is 'Stamkos, Stamkos,' but (Kucherov) is probably their best player," Canucks defenseman Luca Sbisa said. "He's so smooth, effortless. He's not flashy. He doesn't go 100 miles per hour, doesn't make all the highlight reel kind of plays. But he does all the little things of the game so well. Now he's finally getting the recognition."
Kucherov didn't enter the league as hyped as the Lightning's other first-time All-Star this year, defenseman Victor Hedman, who was the No. 2 overall pick in 2009. But Kucherov, a second-rounder in 2011, has earned his elite status.
Since being a healthy scratch in the 2013-14 playoffs as a rookie, Kucherov has evolved into a stronger two-way player. Blues coach Ken Hitchcock believes Kucherov is one of the top 10 tor 15 players in the NHL. Capitals star Alex Ovechkin believes Kucherov could become one of the greatest players in the history of their native Russia.
Kucherov is someone a team builds around, which is why the Lightning signed him in October to a three-year deal worth $4.76 million annually, with hopes of keeping him long term.
"He came into the league a darn good player right off the bat," Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman said. "I think the more people watch him, the more they recognize how complete a player he is. He's good in all facets."
Flames wing Kris Versteeg said Kucherov is one of the few players he likes to watch, hoping to pick up something. Opponents rave about Kucherov's savvy as much as his skill, noting his ability to find open areas on the ice. Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith said that what makes Kucherov so difficult to defend is how "unpredictable" he is.
"He makes the game look really easy," Versteeg said. "He finds open areas. He's a smart player. And he plays big in big games. That's the biggest thing. He doesn't change his game in big games, and the best players don't change their games."
Kucherov has been a clutch postseason performer, with 42 points in 45 career playoff games. And if the Lightning is going to make the postseason this year, Kucherov will have to lead the way. Stamkos isn't expected to return until March at the earliest. With Tampa Bay struggling to score recently, held to one goal in four of its past seven games, Kucherov needs to play like the All-Star he is.
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.