First-quarter accolades for Lightning wing Nikita Kucherov

Tampa Bay Lightning right wing Nikita Kucherov (86) charges into the neutral zone during the third period of Saturday's (11/12/16) game between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the San Jose Sharks at Amalie Arena in Tampa.
Tampa Bay Lightning right wing Nikita Kucherov (86) charges into the neutral zone during the third period of Saturday's (11/12/16) game between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the San Jose Sharks at Amalie Arena in Tampa.
Published Dec. 7, 2016

TAMPA — Penguins captain Sidney Crosby is widely considered the best player in the world.

Some think Oilers phenom Connor McDavid is a close second, despite being in just his second season.

But when ESPN national hockey writer Scott Burnside picked his Hart Trophy leader for league MVP through the first quarter of the season, neither Crosby nor McDavid got the nod.

It was Lightning wing Nikita Kucherov.

"What's really impressed me with Kucherov is his pretty dramatic evolution," Burnside said. "I don't think people understand what kind of talent he represents."

With captain Steven Stamkos out due to knee surgery, Kucherov, 23, has elevated his game — and national profile — Burnside believes. How much so remains to be seen, with all-star voting beginning last week and Kucherov currently not in the top five among Atlantic Division fan voting. But Kucherov, on the ballot for the first time, is a deserving choice, having established himself among the game's elite. He entered Tuesday ranked second in the league in points (29), behind McDavid (34). Kucherov's 1.12 points per game trail only Stamkos, McDavid and Crosby.

"He's a top 10, 15 player in the league," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said.

"He's one of the best players in the National Hockey League this year for sure," Capitals coach Barry Trotz said.

It's not like Kucherov is an unknown quantity. He has racked up 59 combined goals the past two seasons. More importantly, Kucherov has done it on the biggest stage, with 42 points in 45 career playoff games, leading the Lightning on back-to-back playoff runs. But on a team with more recognizable stars like Stamkos and Victor Hedman, even goalie Ben Bishop, Kucherov can fly under the radar.

But not to opposing coaches. Columbus coach John Tortorella considered giving Kucherov the ultimate sign of respect in a Nov. 24 meeting in Tampa. "I was thinking about locking onto Kucherov with one guy and playing 4-on-4 from there," Tortorella said. "That's how dangerous I thought he was."

Said Hitchcock: "He can do damage anywhere. He's fearless on the rush, he's fearless with the puck, he makes plays off the rush, he wins one-on-ones. He's not a big guy, but man, is he ever strong on the puck. He might be underrated if you don't play him very much, but if you play him a couple games, he's a hell of a player."

Kucherov's savvy impresses as much as his skill.

"He's got an uncanny knack where he gets lost and he's out of the end zone," Tortorella said. "We're always telling (our players), 'Look behind you, do the math,' especially when Kucherov is on the ice. He's got an uncanny feel for the game."

Trotz said jokingly, "He's probably wearing (camouflage) most of the time out there. He kind of blends into the trees. All of a sudden, he's there."

Trotz thinks Kucherov is a very underrated passer. "He makes some exceptional passes where you think there's not a (chance). He sends a rocket saucer pass through five sticks and legs."

Capitals star Alex Ovechkin, one of this generation's top scorers, played with fellow Russian Kucherov during September's World Cup of Hockey and noticed his two-way game.

"He's a tremendously skilled player," Ovechkin said. "He's got great shot, great vision. He's going to be one of the greatest players in the history of Russia."

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Since Stamkos, out four months, suffered his injury Nov. 15 in Detroit, Kucherov has 11 points in 11 games, scoring seven of his 13 goals. Tampa Bay is 5-5-1 in that stretch. That's MVP material to Burnside.

"I think within the game, the coaches and GMs around the league understand what kind of talent Kucherov is," Burnside said. "But if you ask the casual fan, people who watch the game, I think now you're going to find people going, 'Oh yeah, Kucherov.' It won't be a great surprise that they see him finish second in the league in scoring. I think the shock value of that is going to diminish very quickly. That's the kind of player he is."

ROSTER MOVE: The Lightning reassigned defenseman Luke Witkowski and forward Michael Bournival to AHL Syracuse, a good sign wing Jonathan Drouin (undisclosed) and defenseman Jason Garrison (lower body) are improving.

Joe Smith can be reached at Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.