If you’ve been following the NHL playoffs at all this year, you’ve undoubtedly heard all about the prolific scoring exploits of Tampa Bay Lightning forward Nikita Kucherov.
Kucherov has been absolutely dynamite so far this postseason, with 12 points in 10 games played, good for a tie for fifth in playoff scoring. Nine of those points, however, have been goals, which has him currently ranked tops among all players.
His Lightning team advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals on Sunday afternoon following a decisive Game 5 victory over the New York Islanders. Kucherov, like he did all series, played a large role in the win, scoring a breakaway goal in the 3rd period that was a dagger into any hopes that New York had of making a comeback.
All of this is certainly nothing new for Kucherov, however. One of the league’s top offensive players at just 22 years of age, he’s racked up huge numbers of points at every level that he’s played at in his hockey career thanks to his impressive combination of skating, puck control, shot repertoire and advanced offensive vision. His 66 points for the Bolts this regular season topped the 64 that he picked up last year.
Which makes it all the more surprising, then, that it took 58 picks for him to get selected way back at the 2011 NHL Entry Draft.
That year Kucherov was coming off of an incredible draft-eligible season. As a 17 year-old he notched 58 points in 41 games for Krasnaya in the MHL, Russia’s then-newly-formed top national junior league, as well as two points in an eight game cup of coffee for CSKA Moscow in the KHL.
Most impressive, though, was what Kucherov was able to do at (to do to?) the 2011 IIHF U18 World Championship. In that tournament he put up a staggering 21 points in just seven games played. That point total is still an official record for the tournament, which is quite remarkable considering players like Alex Ovechkin, Patrick Kane and Vladimir Tarasenko have all taken part in it.
So, just how did the Lightning nab such a talented impact player all the way at the end of the second round?
There are two main reasons why, and incredibly, both have been common blind spots for teams missing out on elite talent at the draft for years: small size and the “Russian Factor.”
At roughly 5’11” and 178 pounds Kucherov is by no means a big player, and there’s no doubting that it hurt his stock back at the 2011 draft. NHL teams have fetishized bigger players pretty much since the draft was first implemented, but in the post “Dead Puck Era” of hockey, with significantly less obstruction, it’s consistently becoming easier and easier for smaller players to succeed.
Secondly, and likely the larger of the two reasons, was the country listed in Kucherov’s passport. NHL teams have fluctuated up and down in their general opinions towards drafting Russian players over the years, with the span from 2009 to 2013 definitely as a down period. The KHL had recently established itself as a league and had begun the process of luring Russian players back home with the promises of big contracts and good ol’ fashioned home cooking. Kucherov specifically had talked about his desire to eventually play in the NHL, but also that he wanted to remain in Russian for the two years immediately following the draft. It seems likely that teams feared that his short-term commitment to the KHL would extend into the long-term, ultimately costing them a draft choice.
However, much like the St. Louis Blues picking Taranseko 16th overall and the Washington Capitals selecting Evgeny Kuznetsov 26th, both in the 2010 draft, the Lightning hit the jackpot by taking advantage of other teams’ hesitancy towards Russians. Despite being taken 58th, Kucherov currently ranks 8th in terms of total regular season points out of the 2011 draft class, just ahead of the 7th overall pick Mark Scheifele and just behind the 6th overall pick Mika Zibanejad.
Now just eight wins away from the Stanley Cup, the Lightning must be quite thankful that other teams “played it safe” and willingly passed up on such a talented player.