Nikita Kucherov is the best hockey player in the world right now.
That title has been thrown around a lot this season, but the Professional Hockey Writers Association and the National Hockey League Players Association and have voted and declared that he is. Kucherov won the Hart Trophy (league MVP voted by the writers) and the Ted Lindsay Award (MVP voted by the players) Wednesday night at the NHL Awards show in Las Vegas.
It seemed obvious Kucherov would win both awards. When your name is linked with the likes of Mario Lemieux because of the season you had, you get awards.
To recap: Kucherov had 128 points, the most since Lemieux (161) and Jaromir Jagr (149) in 1995-96. His 87 assists were the most since Joe Thornton had 96 in 2005-06 and 92 the year after that. Kucherov demolished the Lightning record for points in a season and became the highest-scoring Russian-born NHL player.
Not too shabby for the 58th overall draft pick in 2011.
Kucherov is the first Hart winner who was selected outside of the first round since Marty St. Louis, who is the Lightning’s only other winner of the award. St. Louis went undrafted.
Lightning general manager Julien BriseBois and Kucherov’s agent, Dan Milstein, agree that Kucherov wouldn’t have lasted until the second round if he had been playing in North America. Not even putting up 21 points in seven games at the Under-18 World Championship (the tournament record) just before the draft got him into the first round.
“We were very lucky,” BriseBois said. “If we knew what he was going to do, we wouldn’t have waited until the second round.”
Red Wings senior vice president Jimmy Devellano still can’t get over Detroit passing over Kucherov three times before the Lightning picked him.
Kucherov has turned himself from a good prospect — one who spent time in the AHL and was a healthy scratch in the 2014 playoffs — into the best player in the NHL this year.
He has done so through high standards and work ethic, but without giving much insight into the details.
Coach Jon Cooper frequently credits Kucherov with improving every year. He comes back each season better than the last. Yet, he doesn’t like to talk about his offseason regimen, though it’s stringent with very little down time. This year he took two weeks to visit friends and family in Russia after the Lightning’s first-round playoff sweep by the Blue Jackets, then returned to Tampa and got back to work.
Kucherov has the drive of someone out to prove everyone wrong. Maybe it’s being a second-round draft pick. Maybe it’s something else. Unlike 5-foot-8 St. Louis, Kucherov’s chip isn’t obvious.
He doesn’t like to share much of himself.
Kucherov might be the MVP we know the least about in any of the major sports in recent years. He is the unknown superstar.
Redditor Hockeystyle linked to an article mentioning Kucherov’s infant son with the comment, “Did I miss something or is this just like the time when Kucherov didn’t tell anyone he had gotten engaged/married?”
Fans would love to share in that news, but Kucherov doesn’t owe anyone entrance into his personal life.
“He’s not one to take the fame to his head, and that’s why you won’t see him,” Milstein said. “It’s not that he acts like that at home. To him, hockey is a serious business.”
The agent said Kucherov has a funny side and enjoys comedy. Milstein even described Kucherov as outgoing with his family and friends.
But mostly the 26-year-old’s life revolves around his family — wife Anastasiya and son Max — and hockey. When he isn’t with his family, he’s working on his game.
Just like any little kid trying to get better, Kucherov goes out to the garage to work on his stick skills. Unlike those kids, Kucherov has a fancier setup to do so, with a fake rink instead of just a concrete floor.
Kucherov never ceases to impress BriseBois with his knowledge. He notices things such as what stick or even blade a player is using in addition to how the player did (or didn’t) make a play.
“He’s freakishly smart, especially when it comes to hockey,” BriseBois said. “I always enjoy my conversations with him. He always picks up on little details that makes you go ‘hmm.’ And he’s right.”
BriseBois summed Kucherov up as “a super-sharp hockey mind and freakishly driven to be the best.”
It seems to be working for him.
Contact Diana C. Nearhos at email@example.com. Follow @dianacnearhos.