This is the seventh in a series this month looking at each player on the Lightning’s roster. Up next: Mikhail Sergachev
TAMPA — Superstar is a big word. It evokes athletes such as Connor McDavid, LeBron James, Aaron Judge and Tom Brady.
They can welcome the Lightning’s Nikita Kucherov to the club.
Kucherov shocked, awed and dazzled the NHL this season. He went from good — even great — to special as he left records and milestones in his wake. He earned his favorite role for the league’s two MVP awards, the Hart Trophy (voted by the media) and the Ted Lindsey Award (voted by the players).
He totaled 128 points; no one had scored more than 125 in 20 years. No Russian NHL player had done so. Kucherov demolished Vinny Lecavalier’s Lightning record of 108 points in a season. He tallied 87 assists, the most in the NHL since Joe Thornton’s 92 in 2006-07. We could go on.
Before this season, Kucherov had a spot on some’s most-underrated list. No longer. The 25-year-old earned the $4.8 million raise coming as his new eight-year contract ($9.5 million a year) kicks in next season.
He’s that exciting player who lifts people out of their seats when he has the puck, as Lightning coach Jon Cooper says. Kucherov could be psychic the way he sees multiple steps ahead, sometimes putting himself in what looks like the wrong position until it turns out exactly right.
Something is missing, though. And it’s not just playoff goals this year. Kucherov is a brilliant player, but he hasn’t shown the leadership coaches hope for from superstars.
The most glaring example: his playoff suspension. Kucherov let his temper flare as the Lightning trailed the Blue Jackets in Game 2 of their first-round sweep loss. After misplaying the puck, he tripped Columbus defenseman Markus Nutivaara, then boarded him, making primary contact with Nutivaara’s head.
The Department of Player Safety called it an example of message sending, in addition to frustration, in its video explaining the one-game suspension it gave Kucherov for the play.
Kucherov didn’t have much to say about the play or the suspension.
“Yeah, it sucks,” was about as expansive as he got on the subject during a media session. He followed that with two “no comments” and “next question” twice.
Whether Kucherov wants to talk to the media (he doesn’t), he owes fans some accountability. He also owes his teammates the same, and he might have addressed them (when asked if he had during that media session, he gave one of the “next question” answers), but he’s not the type for a dressing room speech.
This wasn’t an isolated incident, either, in terms of league discipline. He also received his first fine this season, for a slew foot of Islanders defenseman Scott Mayfield on Feb. 1.
Also, Kucherov took the second-most penalties on the Lightning this year. His 24 minors were the most among skill forwards. Next was Steven Stamkos at 16.
He isn’t the only star to take a lot of minor penalties. Mikko Rantanen led the Avalanche forwards. Alex Ovechkin was third on the Capitals. Sam Bennett was the Flames’ most-penalized forward. And Brad Marchand led the Bruins in the regular season.
The issue is the kind of penalties Kucherov takes. Too many of his minors come from frustration. The trip of Nutivaara doesn’t stick out from that play, but it’s more typical of Kucherov’s penalties. On that play, Kucherov misplayed the puck and then, either from frustration or to keep Nutivaara from recovering it, tripped him.
Kucherov has the skill to avoid the tripping, slashing, holding penalties. But he gets lazy at times and takes the easy way out. That keeps him from reaching yet another level of superstardom.
Kucherov’s season in review
High: Kucherov had a 12-game point streak that ran from Dec. 4-Jan. 3, featuring eight goals and 21 assists.
Low: Kucherov’s one-game suspension in the playoffs put the Lightning, down 2-0 in the series, in a worse position.
By the numbers
Seasons since anyone scored at least 128 points, which Kucherov did to lead the league (Mario Lemieux had 161 and Jaromir Jagr 149 in 1995-96)
Points separating NHL leader Kucherov and runnerup Connor McDavid, who won the points title the previous year by six
Games in which Kucherov tallied four or more points