With touted wing prospect Jonathan Drouin missing most of training camp due to a right thumb fracture, it opened the door for Nikita Kucherov to receive a more prominent preseason role.
And Kucherov, a highly skilled21-year-old Russian, has seized the opportunity like he would attack an open net.
Kucherov entered Friday with a league-high five preseason goals, including two in Thursday's 3-0 win over the Panthers. The right wing has played in all five preseason games and likely will play again tonight in the finale against Florida at Amalie Arena. He has had shifts on the first power-play unit and skated on a line with captain Steven Stamkos.
And Kucherov has held his own.
"He's playing with confidence right now," Stamkos said. "We know he has the skill set. Now he's getting a chance to play maybe a little expanded role with Drouin out right now, and he's taking advantage."
Kucherov, a second-round draft pick in 2011, said his confidence was up and down last season, when he played in 52 games for the Lightning. He racked up nine goals, including one on his first NHL shift and shot Nov. 25, but also occasionally found himself a healthy scratch.
"I had some good games, some bad games, and got scratched a couple times," Kucherov said. "It was my first year; I was young and didn't know. It was just a good experience."
Coach Jon Cooper said you could make a case that the Lightning might have called up Kucherov too early but believes it served him well. Cooper can see that Kucherov is more responsible with the puck and in the defensive end. He recalled watching video with Kucherov last year and how there would be more negative clips. Now Kucherov is on the positive side.
"He's been really good for us," Cooper said. "He's stepped up his offensive side, but I really, truly believe he's so much more responsible defensively, it's helped his offensive game. He needs to keep that up and things should work out for him."
Kucherov, at 5 feet 11, 178 pounds, has the offensive package; a quick, left-handed shot, a high hockey IQ, a deceptive quickness and the ability to anticipate where the puck is going. Linemate Vladislav Namestnikov, who entered Friday with a NHL-high seven preseason assists (many on goals for Kucherov), says his fellow Russian finds open ice with ease.
"He's been awesome," Namestnikov said. "I just have to hit him and he puts it in the net."
Kucherov's comfort level has improved beyond the ice. Last year, Cooper said, he'd often have to ask Namestnikov or another Russian to help him communicate. "Now 'Kuch' is speaking to me in English," he said.
"I think I got better at everything," Kucherov said. "I've got older, and I know the guys here, and I have so much confidence in the room and on the ice."
WRAPPING UP: Though Cooper said those battling for roster spots will likely get another shot tonight but expect most of the regular lineup. Ben Bishop will start in goal. Tampa Bay, 4-1-0 in the preseason, wants to keep building the momentum as it heads into Thursday's regular-season opener against the Panthers, with a strong start so important. "You don't want to limp through the first 10 games because you're climbing uphill for the next 72," Cooper said. "You've got to put yourselves into a spot where you're at the top of the hill and if you take a couple steps back, it's easier to maintain your spot in the standings."
Contact Joe Smith at email@example.com. Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.
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Tonight: Preseason finale
Lightning vs. Panthers, 7, Amalie Arena
Radio: 970-AM (no TV)