Teammates don’t dog Nikita Kucherov’s All-Star skills performance

The star right wing may not have made many fans on the international stage, but his Lightning teammates understand his methods.
Lightning right wing Nikita Kucherov may not get a warm reception outside of Tampa Bay, but teammates and fans know his worth.
Lightning right wing Nikita Kucherov may not get a warm reception outside of Tampa Bay, but teammates and fans know his worth. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Feb. 5|Updated Feb. 5

BRANDON — Lightning standout right wing Nikita Kucherov told teammate Mikhail Sergachev that those cries Kucherov was hearing from the Scotiabank Arena crowd in Toronto during last week’s All-Star Game skills competition weren’t actually boos.

“Kuch said that they were yelling ‘Kuch,’ not ‘Boo,’ ” said Sergachev, tongue firmly in cheek, following Monday’s practice at the TGH IcePlex, the team’s first workout since returning from the All-Star break.

During the skills competition Friday, Kucherov refused to race the clock after early muffs in the passing and stick-handling events that took him out of the running and drew a chorus of boos from the Toronto crowd. And it added another chapter to his enigmatic persona.

Inside the Tampa Bay locker room, Kucherov’s teammates know his value. He was the league’s leading scorer at the break and is a major reason why the Lightning are back in the thick of the playoff race, even if his season has been largely ignored in Hart Memorial Trophy frontrunner conversations.

“Saw some of it,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said of the skills event. “It felt like everyone was talking about Kuch, but we don’t care. We know what we have in Kuch and what he’s done, what he’s capable of when the game’s on the line. He’s proved it this year. So, if anything, maybe it’s an extra motivation for him. Who knows? But as long as he keeps playing the way he has, we’re going to be happy.”

As he typically does, Kucherov certainly did things his way in the skills competition, even playing to the crowd throughout the boos. But not everyone found Kucherov’s showing funny.

“I’m not sensing a lot of intensity here,” ESPN play-by-play man John Buccigross commented during the passing competition. “This is a bad look, quite frankly.” Reaction on social media lambasted Kucherov, with some suggesting the league should suspend him.

But the skills competition — especially the new format that debuted — is catered to league darlings like the Oilers’ Connor McDavid and Avalanche’s Nathan MacKinnon, players whose jaw-dropping speed and stick handling put the NHL on top-10 highlight lists. And sure enough, at the end of the day, it was McDavid who was posing for photos, smiling with a $1 million check for winning the event.

But anyone who watches the Lightning closely knows Kucherov doesn’t race a stopwatch. He’s not trying to be the fastest skater or the fanciest stick handler. Instead, he’s taking 300 rims a day to get a feel for the puck on his stick, so he can anticipate how to handle it in a game situation.

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Kucherov is at his best when he’s slowing things down, dissecting the ice with his vision and making plays look easy — whether it’s setting up a teammate or creating a scoring chance for himself — because he’s thinking a step ahead of his competition.

“Some people just don’t understand what happened and they’re barking at him and being mad but when you’re going in that skills competition and you lose the puck in the first three seconds, you have no chance,” Sergachev said. “And then I didn’t see a reason for him to go and try to beat McDavid because those drills are (made) for McDavid because he’s doing them in the summer. Kuch is never doing them in the summer.

“So he did it at his speed, and most of the time, he plays that speed, too. So I’m not mad and it was actually really entertaining and people talk about it, so it’s good for everybody, I guess.”

Boo birds are nothing new for the Lightning.

At last season’s All-Star Game in Sunrise, home of the cross-state rival Panthers, both Kucherov and Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy were booed by the South Florida crowd. Afterward, Vasilevskiy embraced the reception, saying he saw it as a compliment that he was doing something right, and he wished every building was like that.

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