TAMPA — When you ask Nikita Kucherov’s teammates for the reason behind the Lightning right wing’s amazing season, they often start at the beginning.
They’ll tell you about how Kucherov took just two weeks off after last season’s first-round playoff loss to Toronto before returning to the ice. For the first time in four seasons, players had time to rest, but Kucherov needed to feel the puck on his stick again as soon as possible.
Kucherov arguably has been the best player in the NHL this season. Inside the Lightning locker room, it’s not even debatable. The way Kucherov thinks, sees, finds space, finds his teammates, shoots — there’s no one in the league who does it all as well as him.
“He’s just brilliant,” head coach Jon Cooper said. “His mind for the game, there are guys that think it better than others. He thinks better than everybody. And then when you mix in his compete level, you’ve got a pretty darn good player.”
Kucherov is the league’s leading scorer at the All-Star break, his 85 points one more than Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon. With 32 goals through his first 49 games, he almost certainly will top his career high of 41 during his Hart Memorial Trophy-winning season of 2018-19. He’s also on pace for 139 points, which would be the second-highest total by any player over the past 28 seasons. This week in Toronto, he will play in his fifth career All-Star Game.
“It’s been an evolution, and it’s not just this year.” said general manager Julien BriseBois. “It’s been every year, adding to his various ways that he can contribute to us winning.”
BriseBois is quick to praise how much Kucherov’s game away from the puck has improved and to point out that his defense can get overlooked by his offense. When the Lightning are stuck in their end, Kucherov works to get the puck in the defensive zone, and when he does get it on his stick his team usually is able to break out cleanly and create offense.
“I think he’s probably better at everything today than he was back (during his Hart Trophy season),” BriseBois said.
Kucherov has 13 games with three or more points, and the Lightning are 10-1-2 in those games. He only has 10 games when he hasn’t registered a point this season.
Practice makes the perfectionist
The roots of Kucherov’s success this season were established during the summer at TGH IcePlex — repeating drills, playing over possibilities in his head. That’s where he began thinking one step ahead of everyone else. The perfectionist in him doesn’t allow him to do things any other way.
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“Over the years, I think Kuch has found that the more he’s on the ice, the more he’s touching the puck, the more he can feel the plays that are going to happen in the game, the more comfortable and confident he gets in those situations,” said captain Steven Stamkos. “I think this year is a prime example. We were doing rims for what felt like an hour straight on the ice, and you see him in the game and how pucks are just glued to his stick. You can see why he wanted to do that.”
Stamkos calls Kucherov “a cerebral player.”
“He wants to take rims for 20 minutes at a time and touch 300 pucks and make 500 passes before we even start a drill,” he said. “That’s just what gets him going.”
Though his skills are elite, Kucherov’s work ethic is something that can rub off on teammates.
“Usually the best players have those qualities that guys want to follow, and they see Kuch working on things and he brings other people into that. He wants to see them succeed and get better,” Stamkos said. “He demands of himself and others. It’s a great quality to have.
“But that’s something that I think separates him from from a lot of guys is just his his willingness to always try to improve, and whether it’s in the summer where he’s on the ice pretty much every day or before and after practice. It’s something that’s contagious and can help everyone else.”
The right read at the right time
This season, Kucherov has taken it upon himself to shoot more — he is on pace for 73 more shots on goal than his career high of 279 in 2017-18.
“I shoot from everywhere now,” Kucherov said. “Red line, goal line, power play. It doesn’t matter. Most important thing is to help the team win and make the playoffs. That’s the goal right now.”
The Lightning have lost a significant amount of depth since winning the first of back-to-back Stanley Cups in 2020. But Kucherov’s focus on becoming more of a goal-scoring threat is really the latest move in the chess match he plays on the ice.
“He’s just so good at picking the right option, whether it’s shoot or pass,” center Brayden Point said. “When he’s open and he’s got a chance to score he shoots, and when he thinks he can give another guy chances he’s just so good at understanding the ice and picking the best option. His shot certainly is a great option. He’s got one of the better shots in the league. And I think this year he’s proving it.”
Kucherov is an established playmaker — the catalyst of the power play and player with the puck most often in the offensive zone — but the increased threat of his deadly shot forces opponents to pick their poison and creates space for his teammates. When he has opponents thinking he’s going to pass, Kucherov can slip away and find open ice to create his own chances.
“He is able to process things at a lot faster read than the average player, so he knows when it’s time to shoot, he knows when it’s time to suck a guy in and create a hole for someone else,” Stamkos said. “I always felt like the best players made the right read at the right time. That’s not necessarily always trying to set someone up. It’s shooting the puck when that’s the right play.”
Point, a longtime linemate, has been the recipient of many Kucherov assists. He knows skating with Kucherov requires a certain awareness to be ready for him to find you with the puck at any point in the offensive zone.
One of Kucherov’s most dazzling plays came Jan. 6 in Boston. He took a drop pass entering the zone and put the puck between his legs to get a step on defenseman Hampus Lindholm. As Kucherov drove toward the net, he made a no-look, backward, backhand pass past four Bruins on to Point’s stick near the left hashmark for an easy goal. Afterward, Point just shook his head and smiled.
“He just plays so heads up, and he understands time and space and where guys will be so well that even if you don’t think he sees it, he probably does,” Point said. ”So that’s just you’ve always got to be ready for pucks when you’re in certain spots because chances are he’s seeing you and he can get it to you.”
Before Lightning assistant Jeff Blashill joined Cooper’s staff last season, he watched Kucherov as an opponent for years as Detroit’s head coach. The magic Kucherov could create in games was evident — his 45 career points against the Red Wings are his second-most against any team — but the work Kucherov does in practice was something Blashill didn’t see until joining the Lightning.
“Kuch isn’t bored at all with working on some of the simple things to make him a little bit better, whatever that might be — how he stick-handles, how he shoots it, how he passes the puck, how he takes pucks off the wall,” Blashill said. “Those aren’t always the most fun things to do, but it’s like a guy who shoots 100 free throws every day. It pays off. And that’s why the great ones are the great ones is that they’re willing to put that type of tedious work in to actually make your skill set better.”
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