TAMPA — Even when he’s not at 100 percent, Nikita Kucherov can do some magical things on the ice.
The Lightning wing continues to work his way into playing shape after December hip surgery that cost him the regular season. He has been skating for about a month now, slowly getting work during practices and morning skates, joining in on drills. But coach Jon Cooper said he’s still not close to being cleared for contact drills.
Sometimes, in the middle of practice, rookie forward Ross Colton catches himself watching Kucherov.
“You know, when I’m on the ice with him, he’s unbelievable,” Colton said. “When I’m in line and he’s doing a rep, it’s weird to say, but you’re kind of just in awe of what he does with the puck. It’s like it’s on a string when it’s on his stick and he’s unbelievable with it, and he’s such a good skater and he just pulls moves off that I’m like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe he just did that.’ ”
He is still weeks from returning, but Kucherov’s presence alone is uplifting.
The Lightning always expected to have their most dynamic player back for the playoffs. Now, as the Lightning grind through the league’s tightest division race — the Central Division’s top three teams were separated by one point entering Tuesday — getting a healthy Kucherov back for the postseason is the best addition any team can get.
He’s a big reason the Lightning won the Stanley Cup, leading all skaters with 27 assists, 34 points and a plus-15 in the bubble last season.
“He’s been gone for a few months, but then you start seeing him more and more again you get excited, and hopefully things can go a little bit quicker as far as when he might be back,” defenseman Ryan McDonagh said. “No doubt we’re anxious. He’s obviously a humongous part of our team and (he adds) just a great attitude for our group.”
With captain Steven Stamkos also on long-term injured reserve, some have wondered if that could mean a quicker return for Kucherov. The Lightning’s salary cap crunch — Kucherov’s cap hit is $1 million more than Stamkos — makes that difficult.
And the Lightning still have to be careful with Kucherov’s recovery. The type of hip surgery he had usually carries a timetable of five to six months. The end of the regular season is slated for May 16, and May 30 would mark the five-month mark.
A big obstacle is getting opportunities to work with his teammates. During Monday’s morning skate, the only opportunity Kucherov would have to skate with the team over a three-day span, he worked with the fourth line.
“We don’t have a ton of practices,” Cooper said. “So when you’re going to get a chance to get on with the rest of the guys, it kind of breaks up the monotony of what you’ve been having to do. Still, rest is still what’s best for him, and he is making strides. ...
“It’s a little bit of a tease because you’re feeling pretty good, feeling good about yourself but when you go and see the people that make those decisions about your health, they say, ‘No, not yet.’ But he’s progressing.”
There’s no question Kucherov’s presence is being felt. Just as he emerged last year as more of a vocal leader, he’s used his time on the ice to give tips to some of the team’s younger players.
“You see him out there and he’s helping guys, talking to guys,” McDonagh said. “We’ve got a lot of young forwards. It’s great for those guys to see him out there making different plays and his skills rubbing off on on the rest of our group, it’s a great sign for us.”
Colton is one of the young players eager to learn from Kucherov.
“There’s a couple of times where he comes back to the line after I do a rep and just says, ‘Hey, maybe try this or try that,’ and that goes a really long way coming from him,” Colton said. “So, it’s been awesome, I love watching him. I love watching his work ethic and I’m excited to see him back on the ice with the team soon, for sure.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com. Follow @EddieInTheYard.
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