Lightning’s Kucherov Still Has More to Prove

Tampa Bay Lightning star Nikita Kucherov’s record-tying night, when he matched Vincent Lecavalier’s 108 points on the season, should still leave fans wanting. Namely more.

Kucherov Does It All for Lightning

Kucherov has accomplished a great deal in a relatively short amount of time. He really only jumped on the scene a season after the last lockout. Dismissing a 17-game stint in the American Hockey League in 2013-14 (during which he scored 24 points), he effectively made the jump directly from the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League to the NHL for a near-seamless transition into the North American game.

Nikita Kucherov
Nikita Kucherov – (Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

In retrospect, that should have been the first hint that the Russian winger was capable of greatness. He was a second-round pick back in 2011, but, selected by the Lightning at No. 58, he obviously didn’t receive nearly as much fanfare as the top picks of his draft year (Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Gabriel Landeskog, Jonathan Huberdeau or even the Lightning’s first-round pick, Vladislav Namestnikov).

Seven-plus seasons later, he leads all picks taken that year in points with 442 in 432 games. Meanwhile, only Anaheim Ducks goalie John Gibson (taken at No. 39) (and maybe Calgary Flames forward Johnny Gaudreau at No. 104) rivals Kucherov in terms of relative value to their respective teams.

Consider where each team is in the standings, though. The Ducks are struggling to keep their heads above water and the Lightning are up to their eyeballs in talent and vying for the Presidents’ Trophy (if not more). That’s saying a great deal.

Kucherov’s Catches On at Breakneck Speed

Now consider how his career has progressed over those seven years. Kucherov went from a relatively overlooked draftee to an up-and-coming prospect with the Lightning. Once he made the team, he graduated from valued role-player work to a being a key member of the Triplets secondary-scoring line in short order.

One season later he usurped Steven Stamkos as the top scorer on the team. Another season after that he placed in the top five in league scoring. Then it was top three, with his first 100-point campaign. Now it’s No. 1 by a country mile.

The 14-point lead he has on Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks heading into action Wednesday night is as insurmountable as it gets. The league should just mail him the Art Ross Trophy at this point, probably the Hart Memorial when all is said done. Better yet, courier the damn things. Send them by horse just for kicks. By the time they arrive, the regular season might actually have ended.

Tampa Bay Lightning forward Steven Stamkos
Tampa Bay Lightning forward Steven Stamkos – (AP Photo/Chris O’Meara)

The point is this: Kucherov’s ascension into superstar status has been almost video-game like. One by one, he’s checked accomplishments off a to-do list. The only difference is, excluding All-Star nods, he doesn’t have the rewards to back it up. Granted, that’s likely to change sooner rather than later with the awards he’s poised to be up for come the end of the season, but as of right now his trophy case is suspiciously bare.

Close but No Cigar for Kucherov

Oh, he came oh, so close in 2014-15, when the Lightning reached the Stanley Cup Final, only to lose to the Blackhawks. That’s unfortunately what separates Kucherov from Lecavalier, who led the Lightning to a championship in 2003-04, when they were nearly as dominant as this current edition.

Of course, Lecavalier as a player had his drawbacks and Kucherov is by far the more-complete player. What he lacks in frame compared to Lecavalier, he more than makes up for in elite speed. It’s a good thing, too, because there may be a rush to get it done.

Ex-Tampa Bay Lightning forward Vincent Lecavalier
Ex-Tampa Bay Lightning forward Vincent Lecavalier – (Eliot J. Schechter/Getty Images)

Kucherov is only 25. One gets the sense though, with him in his prime, Stamkos exiting his, Brayden Point due for a hefty raise in the summer and Andrei Vasilevskiy due to follow, this current incarnation of the team has only so many kicks at the can left.

Of course, if Kucherov were to carry a team on his shoulders by his lonesome and win one that way, that would more than work too. He needs to get it done one way or another though, for him to truly take over sole possession of the mantle of the best in franchise history.

Kucherov will pass Lecavalier… for the (regular-season) record. He needs just one point to do it. That’s as close to a certainty as there is. The Stanley Cup is a different animal, though. The playoffs, much like the draft, are hard to predict.

Consider how Kucherov had merely been projected to be a top-six winger back in 2011, before the Lightning took him where they did, committing highway larceny in the process. Everyone knew Kucherov had game-breaking skill, but he was seen as a risk, because of his nationality.

No one doubts anymore, that he’s the real deal or that the Lightning have the capability to go all the way. Until Kucherov leads them to the promised land though, his unparalleled progression up the ranks to legendary status will unfortunately be stalled.