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Jones: Nikita Kucherov is Lightning's best player

Tampa Bay Lightning right wing Nikita Kucherov (86) is named the number two star of the game as the Tampa Bay Lightning beat he Edmonton Oilers with a final score of 4 to 1 at the Amalie Arena in Tampa Tuesday evening (02/21/17).
Tampa Bay Lightning right wing Nikita Kucherov (86) is named the number two star of the game as the Tampa Bay Lightning beat he Edmonton Oilers with a final score of 4 to 1 at the Amalie Arena in Tampa Tuesday evening (02/21/17).
Published Feb. 23, 2017

TAMPA — Who is the Lightning's best player? Who would you call The Franchise?

Think of it like this: If there was an expansion draft right now and you could protect only one player in the organization, who would that player be?

Give me Nikita Kucherov.

There are other good options.

There's Steven Stamkos, though the captain has been out with a knee injury. There's defenseman Victor Hedman because you don't find elite defensemen hanging around every street corner. Some would say Jonathan Drouin because he's only 21 and has dazzling offensive skills.

All good picks. Hard to argue against any of them.

But Kucherov, 23, is younger (and healthier) than Stamkos, 27. He's more dynamic than Hedman. He's more responsible at both ends of the ice than Drouin.

I'll take Kucherov, and I'm not alone.

During last season's playoffs, NBC analyst Pierre McGuire, while watching Kucherov during a morning skate, said that when he was at last year's All-Star Game, the buzz about the Lightning surrounded Kucherov.

Not Stamkos. Not Hedman. Kucherov.

One All-Star player told him that Kucherov was the Lightning player other teams feared most.

If the Lightning is indeed going to crawl back from the dead to make the playoffs this season, much of its effort will depend on the Russian. That's especially true because no one is sure when — or even if — Stamkos will return from his injury, let alone be close to the Stamkos we knew.

The good news for Tampa Bay is that its best player is once again starting to play like its best player. He's playing like he did in last year's playoffs, when he carried a team that was missing Stamkos, out because of a blood clot, on his back to Game 7 of the conference final. Seemed like every night during the postseason, Kucherov was in on a goal when the Lightning needed it most.

In Tuesday's 4-1 victory against Edmonton, Kucherov had a hand in all four goals as suddenly resurgent Tampa Bay extended its point streak to 5-0-2. He scored his team-leading 22nd goal of the season and tacked on three assists to give him a team-high 53 points in 52 games.

"When he's on," said linemate Ondrej Palat, "he's a top player, an elite player in this league."

He dominates shifts. He scores. He sets up goals. Plays good defense. He does just about everything well.

Except talk about himself.

After Tuesday's sensational game, Kucherov looked like he would rather sit in a dentist's waiting room than hang out with the media.

"I don't know. I'm just trying to do my best," Kucherov said while shrugging. "Help the team win and get as many shots as I could."

Anything else?

Who cares that he stoned the media after the game. He did plenty of shooting during it. He had nine shots on goal and has had 15 in the past two games.

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"That's a big number," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. "When you've got that shoot-first mentality instead of pass first, good things are going to happen. He's commanding the puck and shooting the puck, and that's what scorers need to do. He understands what he has to do, and now it's paying dividends for him."

Like the Lightning, it has been a strange season for the guy called "Kooch."

With Stamkos out since mid November, Kucherov has been the player the Lightning has leaned on. Overall, he's averaging more than a point a game and is noticeable on most shifts. As good as Kucherov is offensively, Lightning defenseman Anton Stralman called him the team's best defensive player.

But Kucherov also can be streaky. In early January he went goal-less in five games. Then going into Tuesday, he had no goals in six of the previous seven games. His big night Tuesday snapped a four-game pointless streak.

"It's important that he gets his goals," Stralman said, "to feel good about himself, and I think (Tuesday) was a big relief for him."

Don't tell Kucherov that. When asked if he's feeling better of late, Kucherov said somewhat defiantly, "I always have confidence."

Over the next several seasons, the Lightning is going to have some important decisions to make about who to re-sign and who to grudgingly let go.

The team is already committed to Stamkos and Hedman. Soon, tough calls will have to be made on Drouin, Palat, Tyler Johnson and Kucherov, who, after a brief holdout, signed a three-year deal in October worth an average of $4.766 million per season.

When that deal is up after the 2018-19 season, he will be due big-time money. We're talking Stamkos money. Like more than $8 million a year.

And the Lightning should pay it.

After all, three years from now, he will be in his prime and the Lightning's best player.

Just like he is now.