Lightning’s Kucherov Has Evolved Into a Veteran Leader

The image of Tampa Bay Lightning’s forward Nikita Kucherov shirtless, arms stretched wide with a big grin on his bearded face, is now part of NHL history. They had just won their second Stanley Cup and he led the team in playoff points (32 points in 23 games) – after missing the entire season due to hip surgery. In his first game of the postseason against the Florida Panthers, he scored two goals and had an assist, which was not only impressive but quite frankly, stunning.

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Since he was drafted by the Lightning over a decade ago, Kucherov has evolved into one of the best players in the league, and one of his team’s top leaders. He not only has the admiration of his teammates and coaches, but also his opponents, who study his every move in preparing to play against him. In honor of Kucherov being named an alternate captain, let’s examine the evolution of his leadership as a hockey player.

An Undersized Young Russian Forward

As a child growing up in Maykop, Russia, Kucherov had a poster of the “Russian Five” on the wall of his bedroom. When he began playing hockey, he was younger than the other children and undersized for his age. To compensate, his youth hockey coach, Gennadi Kurdin, focused little Nikita’s game on making quick and precise passes.

In an article by Igor Rabiner (translated by RawCharge), Kurdin stated, “I taught him to survive. If he carried the puck, he’d be crushed. He and Goose [Nikita Gusev] learned to get rid of the puck quickly, see the partner and the field. Pass and get open.”

He also emphasized two things that have become hallmarks of Kucherov’s game: don’t stand still on the ice and be creative (from “NHL99: Nikita Kucherov is an on-ice artist with a library of skill, borrowed from many,” The Athletic, Nov. 12, 2022).

Tampa Bay Lightning's Nikita Kucherov remembers the lessons he learned from his youth hockey coach to score on Boston Bruins' Tuukka Rask
Tampa Bay Lightning’s Nikita Kucherov remembers the lessons he learned from his youth hockey coach to score on Boston Bruins’ Tuukka Rask (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

Those skills served Kucherov well when he began playing in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) for two seasons before coming to North America to learn how to play North American hockey, which is played on a smaller ice rink and focuses on a tougher, more defensive-style game. He spent his first season playing in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) before heading to the Syracuse Crunch in the American Hockey League (AHL). The Lightning called him up on Nov. 24, 2013.

Triplets in Tampa

As is widely known, Kucherov scored on his first shift – and his first shot – in the NHL against the New York Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist. However, in 52 games, he only managed to score eight goals and eight assists and averaged a little over 13 minutes per game. But Lightning coach Jon Cooper saw great potential in his young winger. However, he needed to learn how to play defense and how to be a professional athlete, so Kucherov emulated the best player on the team: Martin St. Louis, who was the team’s captain and leader.

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Over the summer, Kucherov had synthetic ice installed in his garage so he could practice skating and shooting. The next season, he was a plus-38 and added 65 hits, both are the best of his career so far. From his first season, he has increased his scoring production every year (not counting the COVID-19 shortened seasons and the 2020-21 season when he was out for the entire regular season recovering from surgery).

Kucherov’s scoring really began to explode on Oct. 24, 2014, when Cooper readjusted his offensive lines and put him on the second line with Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson. To the coach’s surprise, and the fans’ delight, they gelled and started producing goals. Cooper noticed that they always seemed to be on the same wavelength, saying, “It’s like they’re triplets.” With those words, one of the Lightning’s most potent offensive lines was born.

When on the ice, the triplets accounted for 199 points during their first regular season together. Their production also helped the Lightning reach the Stanley Cup Final versus the Chicago Blackhawks in 2015. In fact, the trio scored exactly half of the team’s postseason goals through Game 2 of that Stanley Cup Final (30 of 60).

Tampa Bay Lightning right wing Nikita Kucherov (86) celebrates with teammates, including defenseman Victor Hedman (77) and center Tyler Johnson (9)
Tampa Bay Lightning right wing Nikita Kucherov (86) celebrates with teammates, including defenseman Victor Hedman (77) and center Tyler Johnson (9) (AP Photo/Chris O’Meara)

During the summer of 2017, Cooper was further impressed with how dedicated Kucherov was to improve his game. He commented, “Tampa is a little hot so it’s understandable why guys don’t come back too early, but he did. He was at the rink every single day working on his game. That’s how the great players become elite players. That’s what he’s done. He is an elite player.”

After proving he was developing into one of the team’s leaders, Kucherov found himself playing on the top line with Steven Stamkos and on his way to his first 100-point season.

The 128-Point Season

It was the 2018-19 season when Kucherov exploded on the ice…scoring 128 points. It was the most by a Russian-born player in a single NHL season and the highest since Mario Lemieux (161 points) and Jaromir Jagr (149) ruled the ice 26 seasons prior. For his historic season, he collected the Art Ross Trophy, Ted Lindsay Award, and the Hart Memorial Trophy.

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

That season, the Lightning amassed 128 points to tie the Detroit Red Wings for the most points in a single season. They also entered the playoffs as a favorite to win the Stanley Cup; however, they were swept in the first round by the Columbus Blue Jackets in a humiliating and demoralizing defeat. After so much success in the regular season, no one played well in that playoff series, and Kucherov let his frustration out with a hit on Markus Nutivaara and was suspended for Game 3. Keeping his composure during games was the last piece that he needed to overcome to become a true leader, and he learned an important lesson as he watched his team lose from the sidelines.

Kucherov Leads Lightning to Two Stanley Cups

The Lightning started the 2019-20 season slow – some called it a hangover – after their stunning postseason sweep. However, they turned the season around with Kucherov providing 85 points in the shortened 68-game season, and they ended up powering through their playoff opponents to win the Stanley Cup. With Stamkos out of the lineup for almost the entire postseason, Kucherov stepped up and led the team with 34 points. The following season, after missing the entire regular season recovering from hip surgery, he repeated his postseason brilliance with 32 points leading the team to a second-straight championship. Last season, as the team advanced to their third consecutive Stanley Cup Final, he again led the team with 27 points.

Nikita Kucherov helps the Tampa Bay Lightning win the 2021 Stanley Cu
Nikita Kucherov helps the Tampa Bay Lightning win the 2021 Stanley Cup (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

To put this accomplishment in perspective, over the past three postseasons, Kucherov has scored 93 points, which is almost 30 points better than the next-best player. The only other players to score more than 90 points in a three-postseason span are Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky.

The Lightning’s Quiet Leader

Assistant coach Rob Zettler posted why Kucherov is now wearing the “A” on his jersey: “He is one of our leaders. He is the most talented guy on our team. He is having some success on the scoreboard, putting up some numbers, but he is also working hard on the other side of the ice so we wanted to acknowledge him for that.”

After nearly a decade with the Lightning, Kucherov has accomplished more than any other player for the franchise. Night after night, he continues to dazzle the fans, frustrate the opposition, and set up his linemates for goals – or score himself. So far this season, he leads the team with 31 points. However, his evolution into a team leader stretches far beyond the scoresheet.

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