When Nikita Kucherov is on the ice for the Tampa Bay Lightning, there are few players in the world who can play like him. He is a dynamic force that drives offensive play, and he was one of the key cogs in the machine that pulled the Lightning to their second Stanley Cup championship in franchise history. Not to mention, he also was the 2019 Hart Trophy winner, posting 128 points in, arguably, the most dominant regular-season performances in franchise history.
While he may be one of the Lightning’s best players, however, Kucherov is still human. After suffering an offseason injury, he underwent surgery that kept him out of the entire 2020-21 regular season, a blow that certainly affected the team. Without his presence on the ice, their offense lacked a certain punch, and while Tampa Bay still scored at a top-10 in the NHL pace, aspects of their offensive game plan just weren’t as dynamic.
The good news for the Lightning, though, is that Kucherov is expected to be back for Game 1 of the 2021 Stanley Cup playoffs. In recent practices, he was paired alongside Brayden Point and Ondrej Palat on top-line, playing alongside his linemates from the 2020 postseason, where he saw incredible success.
In any situation, reuniting this line would be a big win for Tampa Bay, as these players are some of the most productive scorers for the team right now. They have the size, speed, and skill to break games wide open, and their scoring prowess will be vital for the Lightning to have a chance to get by the Florida Panthers in Round 1.
Lightning May Need To Ease Kucherov Into Lineup
There is one rightful concern, however. No matter how good Kucherov is, jumping directly into postseason play after missing the entire regular season will be difficult. Assuming he is put back into his same first-line role, he would be playing 18 to 22 minutes each night, which is a lot coming off a months-long injury rehab. Getting up to speed for any NHL game takes time, let alone trying to get back into mid-season form for a historic matchup against your in-state rivals.
Not only is that a lot of playing time without having a few warmup games beforehand, but this is also going to be a physical series with the Panthers. The more he is on the ice, the more likely Kucherov will be targeted by Florida, as all it would take is one solid hit to suddenly undo months of rehab.
With this in mind, it might do Tampa Bay well to find a way to ease Kucherov back into the lineup for Game 1 and maybe even Game 2 of this series. Under normal circumstances, finding this spot would be difficult, but the Lightning may have an option available to ease Kucherov back into the lineup while still getting him meaningful ice-time.
With the recent injury to Barclay Goodrow, Tampa Bay may be in need of a right-winger to pair with Blake Coleman and Yanni Gourde on the team’s third-line. This line was one of the best for the team all season long, and while the loss of Goodrow is huge, it could benefit Kucherov.
See, he could start Game 1 on the third line, playing alongside two players who are able to drive the play with their speed and skill, that are also scrappy, and have solid offensive upside to score goals while setting up Kucherov at the point. This would give him a great situation to get his feet under himself again in a more sheltered role, taking on about 12 minutes of five-on-five ice-time while being available to jump onto the top power-play unit throughout the night.
Lightning Can’t Rush Kucherov Back Onto the First Line
If Kucherov is seen as ready to take on top-line minutes for the Lightning, then nothing is going to stop him. He is one of the most driven players on the team, and if he believes he is ready to go for Game 1, then expect him to take on this meaningful role immediately.
However, even if he believes he is ready to go for 18 to 22 minutes of ice time each night, it may serve the Lightning better if Kucherov spent the first game or two on the third-line, playing a little bit less while still being in a position to have an impact on the ice. As Steven Stamkos showed in the Stanley Cup Final, it only takes a few minutes of ice time to score a series-altering goal.
If he is truly ready to take on first-line minutes after missing the entire 2020-21 regular season, then Kucherov should slot right back into this role and will likely have an impact on the team from there. However, if he is being rushed back for the 2021 Playoffs, then he runs the risk of further injury, which could change not only his plans for this postseason but for next season as well.
Eugene Helfrick is a Tampa Bay Lightning writer who is actually from Tampa Bay. He has written about the Lightning for six years, covering everything from their run to the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, to their crushing first-round exit in 2019, to their redemption in the bubble in 2020. While he is happy to talk about just about anything from cows to cars to video games, hockey will always remain one of his favorite pastimes.