Some would say that he is irreplaceable. Those who say that would be absolutely right.
Tampa Bay Lightning forward Nikita Kucherov is one of the most lethal players in the NHL. He is the ultimate playmaker. Not only is he a wicked sniper, capable of putting the puck in the net from almost any angle, he is an incredible setup man, making passes that other players can only dream of making, setting up goal after goal.
Those incredible skills led Kucherov to be named the 2018-19 Hart Trophy winner, given to the MVP of the league. Those skills also led to a very productive playoff run for the 27-year-old Russian in 2019-20. He put up 34 points in 25 games, helping the Lightning to their second Stanley Cup championship in franchise history.
But unfortunately, the Lightning will be without Kucherov, and his incredible playmaking skills, for the 2020-21 regular season, as he recently had surgery on an injured hip. However, there is hope that he will return to the playoffs if Tampa Bay makes it.
No Reason to Panic
While not having Kucherov is less than ideal for the Lightning, there is no reason for the team, or its fans, to panic. The Lightning will be just fine without him for one regular season.
Although he is arguably the best offensive player on the team, the Bolts have offensive firepower all over the place. The Lightning still have captain Steven Stamkos, who is expected to be ready to go for the beginning of the regular season. They have forward Brayden Point, who was next in line to win the Conn Smythe Trophy last postseason behind Victor Hedman. Point tallied 14 goals in last season’s Stanley Cup Playoffs, while also adding 19 assists for a total of 33 points.
Along with Point and Stamkos, the Lightning also have an incredible amount of depth at forward, as players like Ondrej Palat, Yanni Gourde and Anthony Cirelli are extremely capable of producing. Not only that, but Tampa Bay gets offensive production from its defensemen. Hedman, arguably the best defensemen in the league, tallied 10 goals and 22 total points in the Lightning’s 2019-20 postseason run. Mikhail Sergachev is also a young defenseman with offensive capabilities, as he manned the first power-play unit for much of the postseason.
But while all of these players are important in making up for the loss in offensive production caused by Kucherov’s injury, the key to the Lightning’s success is goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy.
Known as, “Vasy,” the Russian netminder has established himself as one of the premier goaltenders in the NHL. He won the Vezina Trophy for the best goaltender in the league in the 2018-19 season, and was a finalist again in 2019-20. With him in net, the Lightning should have very little to worry about in the 2020-21 season.
Losing Kucherov Both a Blessing and a Curse
While the Lightning would obviously prefer to have the former Hart Trophy winner in the 2020-21 season, the team did benefit from Kucherov’s injury, as crazy as that sounds. He will miss the entire regular season, which means that he will go on the long-term injured reserve list. With him going to that list, the Lightning no longer have to pay him the $9.5 million that he was owed for this upcoming season.
With that being the case, the Lightning had $9.5 million more to spend this offseason, which came in handy as they were in a tight cap crunch. With players like Sergachev, Cirelli and Erik Cernak, as well as others, needing contract extensions, it looked like the team was going to have to move a player or two in order to get the contracts done and get under the cap.
However, Kucherov’s injury freed up the necessary cap space to allow the Lightning to get the contracts done for Sergachev, Cirelli and Cernak while not having to trade away any of their other players.
Division Realignment Will Help
Even without Kucherov, the Lightning probably wouldn’t need much help reaching the postseason. This is a team that just won a Stanley Cup championship without Stamkos, who happens to be one of the elite players in the NHL.
Even after finishing second in the Atlantic Division in the Eastern Conference, behind the Boston Bruins, in the 2019-20 season, the Lightning looked like an unstoppable force in the postseason. They even beat the Bruins in the second round of the playoffs, winning four straight games after losing Game 1.
But the Bruins, along with many others foes in the Atlantic Division, won’t be a problem for the Lightning this year as the NHL realigned the divisions for the 2020-21 regular season.
Instead, the Lightning will face a new group of teams in pursuit of a playoff appearance, and possibly a second straight championship. Among these teams, only the Dallas Stars, who the Lightning defeated in the Stanley Cup Final, made it past the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season.
Instead of playing the likes of the Bruins and the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Lightning will be playing the Stars, along with other teams such as the Nashville Predators, Carolina Hurricanes and Columbus Blue Jackets.
With less serious threats in the division, the Lightning should be able to reach the postseason once again, and at that time they believe Kucherov should be able to return. So, while not having Kucherov is less than ideal for the defending champs, they should be just fine without him.
Zach Seifter is a beat writer for the Tampa Bay Lightning. He is from the Tampa-area and is a 2020 graduate of the University of Florida. He has two years of sports writing experience covering the NHL, NCAA and NFL.