TAMPA — Nikita Kucherov has always been a watcher.
When he first entered the NHL in the 2013-14 season, he didn’t say much, but he still paid attention to details. He watched how older players carried themselves, how they prepared and how they played.
Now, the 29-year-old Kucherov possesses one of the most magnificent minds in the league — a byproduct of constantly studying the game and working to improve. And everyone else in the Lightning locker room — veterans and rookies alike — are watching him and taking cues.
“He’s such a good resource because he knows the game so well and he is so good at it,” said his linemate, Brayden Point. “He’s one of the biggest tools we have for improvement here because he’s willing to help and knows how to do it.”
Kucherov is having one of the best seasons in what already is becoming a storied career, entering Saturday leading the league in assists with 52 while on pace for a season that could rival his Hart Memorial Trophy-winning one in 2018-19 (league-high 87 assists, 128 points). He will play in his fourth career NHL All-Star Game, next weekend in Sunrise.
It’s one thing to be one of the best players in the league, but it’s another to find ways to make everyone around you better, even off the ice.
“You’re getting older and all of a sudden, you’re one of the oldest guys in the room,” Kucherov said. “Now young guys come up and ask questions and I’m always open to talk, to help in some areas where I can. Before it just wasn’t as many young guys as there are now.”
This season, Kucherov is wearing the alternate captain “A” on his jersey for the first time.
“I’m kind of happy that was given that opportunity,” he said. “And my job is just to be a good role model for young guys and help the team in any way I can.”
When Kucherov was younger, he learned by example. He didn’t play with Marty St. Louis long — he was traded during Kucherov’s rookie season — but St. Louis’ passion stood out to him. Current teammates like Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman helped along the way. Kucherov admired Teddy Purcell’s skill. Ryan Malone helped Kucherov navigate life in the NHL. He took lessons from role players like Nate Thompson, Eric Brewer and B.J. Crombeen. But for the most part, Kucherov did a lot of observing.
“I was always the shy guy, never asked questions,” Kucherov said. “I would just watch the guys and kind of mimic, like imitate, what they do. ... Sometimes, I wish I could go back and I could spend more time to learn. We had a good team of guys, actually, I was lucky to have those kinds of guys that made me feel comfortable in the room and kind of showed me the way.”
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Kucherov didn’t establish his voice in the room until several years later, but the work ethic he showed as a young player made an impression.
“He understood the work that it was going to take to be the player that he is today,” Stamkos said. “And that’s been the thing that has stood out from Day One. No one really expected a lot from Kuch on the leadership side when you come over as a young kid, but little did he probably know his work ethic was something that a lot of people looked up to even at that time.”
Kucherov is often the first player on the ice for practice long before anyone else, methodically working on his stickhandling, weaving one puck through a maze of pucks. He takes every opportunity to study game film.
“When you look at how good he is and you see still how hard he works at his game, it’s a big motivator for our guys,” Point said. “When you see your best player working that hard on his game to get better, then you better be doing it, too.”
Said Kucherov: “I never thought of it that way. It was just the way I was raised and taught all my life to always work on your game and it’s that simple. You spend time on the ice and just constantly work on your game. You can’t be satisfied.”
Stamkos said that the Lightning becoming a championship team coincided with Kucherov becoming more of a vocal leader, which started when this Lightning group made its first Stanley Cup run in 2019-20.
“Even on the bench, we always joked that he was making sure guys were dumping the puck in and playing in the right way,” Stamkos said. “To hear that from a guy with that much skill and creativity, it just shows how much he wanted to win. I think it just snowballed from there.”
Younger players are drawn to Kucherov, trying to get his insight on the game. Brandon Hagel’s stall is next to Kucherov’s at Amalie Arena, and Hagel is often picking his brain. It’s not uncommon to see Point and Kucherov sharing a tablet going between shifts on the Lightning bench.
“I would say he’s the best player in the NHL, just the way he thinks about the game and the way he does little things on the ice,” Hagel said. “Yeah, his vision is incredible, but there’s little things that need to happen for him to put the puck in the right position.
“He just sees so far ahead of the game, with the shoulder checks, he looks and he knows where guys are before he’s going to get the puck or just reads what he thinks a guy’s going to do. And nine times out of 10, it’s going to pay off.”
Both Hagel and Nick Paul have long admired Kucherov’s board work, and how easy he makes it look. They talk about how Kucherov pulled them aside and gave them tips on how to play the puck off the wall, just slight adjustments to their positioning and stick angle that would help them control the puck better.
“The reason he’s so elite is because he thinks differently than everyone else,” Paul said. “They say that sometimes the greatest players can’t coach because they see it differently than everyone else. But he’s very good at just relating to your game.”
Lightning TV color analyst Brian Engblom concurs.
“He’s a real teacher, and he’s really explaining it in detail,” he said. “We look at his hands, and we figure out what he was thinking after he’s done it and you go ‘Wow.’ But if you watch the details of how he moves his whole body, his feet, his hips, everything. It’s no different than quarterbacks throwing the ball, or a pitcher. But you learn more from watching great players, and he is an observer and that’s why he’s so good.”
It’s not just younger players who benefit. Corey Perry sees Kucherov’s mind at work after every road game on the team charter. He sits in the row behind Kucherov on the airplane, and moments after sitting down, Kucherov is already studying his shifts from that night’s game. Perry, an 18-year NHL veteran, is eager to be there for the lesson.
“I’ll see the whole game from back there,” Perry said. “I watch what he’s talking about, and just seeing the way his mind works, and then he goes about and talks to whoever he needs to talk to, telling them, ‘Hey, this play’s here.’
“You see those things and you can tell that his mind is pretty tremendous in the hockey sense.”
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