Nikita Kucherov Is Still a 100-Point Scorer if He Stays Healthy

When Tampa Bay Lightning star forward Nikita Kucherov missed the entire 2020-21 regular season due to hip surgery, he returned just in time for the postseason and scored 32 points, the most by any player that postseason. The team won their second consecutive Stanley Cup and he let loose in his now-legendary news conference that shined a floodlight on the real Russian-born star.

Last season, Kucherov missed 35 games due to a lower-body injury and COVID-19 protocol, but still managed to score 69 points in 47 games. During the postseason, he was again the Lightning’s most productive offensive player with 27 points. As such, if he can stay healthy, he can easily score 100 or more points in 2022-23.

Kucherov Emerges as Elite Player

Selected as the 58th pick in the second round of the 2011 NHL Draft, Kucherov played only 17 games with the Syracuse Crunch of the American Hockey League (AHL). Called up to the NHL on Nov. 24, 2013, he scored a goal on his first shift—his very first shot on goal – getting the puck past New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist.

By the time the Lightning made it to the 2015 Stanley Cup Final against the Chicago Blackhawks, Kucherov was emerging as an offensive threat. During his first playoff appearance, he scored two overtime goals and 22 points in 22 games. But he was just warming up. His production increased exponentially when he scored 85 points in only 74 games during the 2016-17 regular season. Then, in the 2017-18 season, he hit the 100-point mark, becoming only the third player in team history to score at least 100 points in a season.

Kucherov was still just warming up, as his play during the postseason saw him produce a point-per-game against the Washington Capitals in the Eastern Conference Final.

Nikita Kucherov of the Tampa Bay Lightning
Nikita Kucherov established himself as a superstar with 128 points during the 2018-2019 regular season. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

However, it was during the 2018-19 regular season that Kucherov became red hot, as he helped the Lightning win the Presidents’ Trophy for the most points, at 128 (tied for second all-time). He notched 41 goals and 87 assists that season for 128 points, the most scored by a Russian-born player in the history of the NHL and the most since the 1995-96 season. That year he won the Art Ross Trophy, the Ted Lindsey Award and the Hart Memorial Trophy. However, their chance to win the Stanley Cup vanished at the hands of the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round.

A Young Kucherov Learns From His Coach

Now that Kucherov has established himself as one of the top forwards in the NHL and one of the most elite players of his generation, opponents have taken notice. During the Stanley Cup Final against the Dallas Stars in 2020, he was knocked into the boards and flattened on the ice by the Stars’ big defensemen, Jamie Oleksiak and Esa Lindell. He was hit so many times that even Jimmy Fallon asked him about it while interviewing him on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.

So, how does a star forward stay healthy when he attracts so much attention on the ice? Playing on a team with older, bigger and stronger boys, Kucherov learned from a young age how to pass the puck. His youth hockey coach in Russia, Gennadi Kurdin, taught the undersized teenager to move the puck quickly. In an article by Igor Rabiner (translated by RawCharge), the coach taught his players that “a shot is the natural continuation of the pass.” (from ‘Nikita Kucherov, unheralded superstar part 2: Financial adversity, Silver Sharks and White Bears’, Sports-Express, 2018).

Lesson learned as Kucherov is now one of the best playmakers in the NHL. Analysts constantly remark that he is thinking two steps ahead of everyone else on the ice, as his passes appear effortless. For example, in the Second Round of last season’s Stanley Cup Playoffs, Ross Colton was the recipient of a perfect, no-look pass from him that led to the game-winning goal against the Florida Panthers with 3.8 seconds left before overtime.

Related: Lightning’s Ross Colton Finds Home on the Fourth Line

After the game, he remarked, “but when you’re on the ice with (Kucherov), you have to be ready for anything.”

The Unpredictability of Kucherov’s Play

During last season’s playoffs, Kucherov proved just how resilient he was after Colorado Avalanche defenseman Devon Toews cross-checked him into the boards late in the third period of Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final. Although he didn’t return for the last few minutes of that game, he suited up for Game 4. It was only after they lost their bid to win a third consecutive title did Lightning general manager Julien BriseBois disclose that Kucherov had injured his MCL.

At 5-foot-11 and 183 pounds, Kucherov isn’t the biggest player on the ice, nor is he the fastest skater. What makes him unique is that his mind works faster than Brayden Point can skate, and his reaction times are quicker than Andrei Vasilevskiy can slide across the crease. He can see plays develop in his mind and then make a perfect pass or trick the goalie into thinking he’s going to pass. But what’s more impressive is the fact that just when you think you’ve got him figured out, he makes an unexpected play that leaves even his own teammates in awe. However, don’t expect to see him rely on that play for the rest of his career, as coach Kurdin also emphasized creativity and playing an unpredictable game because the other team is always studying their opponents’ moves.

Nikita Kucherov Tampa Bay Lightning
The Lightning’s Nikita Kucherov is always one step ahead of his opponents (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The Lightning need Kucherov to be healthy enough to play the entire upcoming regular season. Before the pandemic and injuries, he had back-to-back seasons with 100-plus points. If he plays close to 82 games this season, he can set up those highlight-reel assists and restore his team’s power play as one of the most feared in the NHL. To do so, he’ll need to rely on being quick, creative and deceptive with the puck, which might just keep defenders at bay and keep him on the ice.

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