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Can Nikita Kucherov still be a force for the Lightning while sidelined?

The star forward watched and learned from new vantage points, and offered advice to teammates, while out last regular season.
The Lightning's Nikita Kucherov, left, with Brayden Point, middle, and Ondrej Palat on the ice on the opening day of Lightning training camp.
The Lightning's Nikita Kucherov, left, with Brayden Point, middle, and Ondrej Palat on the ice on the opening day of Lightning training camp. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Oct. 23

TAMPA — When Nikita Kucherov missed all of the last regular season recovering from hip surgery, he took the opportunity to find a way to get better even without being on the ice.

Kucherov’s greatest strength might be his vision, the way he can anticipate plays developing. While he was out, he watched games from the press box at home and on TV when the team was on the road.

“I think I learned a lot,” Kucherov said of seeing the game from new vantage points.

He believed that experience would make him a better player, but now he is sidelined indefinitely, with a lower body injury.

So what can Kucherov do now to help teammates fill his void, especially given that they don’t have the same adjustment period? Because the Lightning went into last season knowing Kucherov would be out until at least the postseason, they spent the preseason focused on life without him. An in-season injury creates more on-the-fly adjustments.

“He’s going to be around the guys and he’s such a smart player and ... you know he does make guys around him better,” defenseman Victor Hedman said. “So if it’s not on the ice, I’m sure he can help from the sidelines as well so we’ll obviously use him as much as we can.”

Much has been made about how Kucherov’s growth as a player and leader coincided with the Lightning becoming a championship team. Last season, players and coaches alike lauded Kucherov for the way he continued to be engaged with the team.

“He’s a huge part of our team and the fabric of our team,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “So when he’s around it’s just good for everybody — good for him and good for us. And anytime he’s given guys pointers, people listen and I assume that’ll happen again.”

Kucherov and linemate Brayden Point possess some of the best chemistry of any top scoring line pair in the league, and they work on building that practically between every shift. When they reach the bench, they often pull out an iPad and go over their shift together. Point said Kucherov’s ability to adapt in game is one of his greatest strengths, an asset the team will miss.

“He’s really good at identifying how a team’s playing in the moment, and then going out and executing next shift, an actual change that he sees,” Point said. “So there’s a ton of things that I learned from him.”

When Kucherov’s absence last season left the Lightning power play without a catalyst, he helped forward Ondrej Palat, who filled his spot along the half wall.

“I know especially when (Palat) was playing the half wall, (Kucherov) was helping him out,” forward Alex Killorn said. “Just kind of certain reads, certain looks, certain things when the puck’s up the wall. There’s just certain things he does, but he’ll definitely (help). He sees it differently than even the coaches.”

For now, the Lightning are experimenting with Point in Kucherov’s spot on the power play, something they did initially last regular season before returning Point to the bumper position in front of the net and moving Palat to the outside. Whether it’s Point or Palat there, neither is expected to be the kind of distributor Kucherov is, so the Lightning power play will have a different look to it.

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“We’ve just got to take what’s there,” Hedman said of a power play unit that went 0-for-6 Tuesday against the Panthers in a 4-1 home loss, Tampa Bay’s first game without Kucherov.

“We’ve just got to make sure that we outwork the PK. Kuch is the best in the world on the half wall and we can’t replace that. But we went through it last year and we had some success so we’ve just got to get back to that ... just focus on what we can control.”

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