Tampa Bay – Nikita Kucherov doesn’t exactly have a poker face.
“It’s the kind where you can tell when things are going well or not going well, on and off the ice, based on his body language,” said ESPN analyst Ryan Callahan, Kucheroff’s former colleague with Tampa Bay Lightning.
Things were going well for Kucherov in the Finals of Game Three of the Eastern Conference. Captain Stephen Stamkos saw it from his first shift.
“You can hear the chatter on the seat when he comes down [the ice]. Guys know that your best player is “on” in a huge game. It was part of setting the tone. Then you look at the end of the match, he contributed to every goal and put in a great performance on all of them,” said Stamkos.
Kucherov scored a goal and assisted two others to lead the Lightning Rally from two goals down. Energetic defensively and engaged to the point of hostility, he awarded New York Rangers goalkeeper Igor Shesterkin a slash to the back of a shin that Rangers coach Gerard Gallant described as “the dirt behind the play” in Game Three.
After the win, Kucherov said: “For everyone, it’s important to raise your game. You’re 2-0 behind. You’re on the ice at home. You want to play better than you did in the first two games.”
The first game saw Kucherov gain minus -2 and fail to make a point. His frustration was palpable and palpable. His reaction to this effort was predictable by his teammates.
“If he doesn’t feel it’s up to his standards, the next game is usually really good,” said Stamkos.
The Lightning has scored five goals since the first game. Kucherov has a point on all of them.
NHL fans now know this version of Kucherov:
He has the second-highest regular season point average per game behind Conor McDavid over the past three seasons, winning the Hart Award as the league’s Most Valuable Player in 2018-19.
He collected an astonishing 88 points in 65 playoffs, helping lead the Lightning team to two back-to-back Stanley Cup titles.
He is unbending from adversity, and resentments are temporary at best.
But it was not always this way for Kucherov.
“Coach’s enemy was himself,” said coach John Cooper. “He expected to be the best player on the ice every night. He expected everything to happen. If things didn’t go well, the frustration started.”
Cooper has coached Kucherov since he was a junior in 2013-2014. It was three whirlwind years for the winger: he played for CSKA Red Army Jr. At the age of 18, then in the Quebec Major League Hockey League for the Quebec Rimparts and Rouyn-Noranda Huskies, then splitting time between AHL’s Syracuse Crunch and Lightning, Cooper was in his first full season as head coach.
He was enduring with undeniable offensive skill, but only produced 18 points in his first 52 NHL games.
“When you come from a different country, a different culture, it takes time to adjust,” Cooper remembers.
Callahan joined Lightning in Kucherov’s junior season. He didn’t know much about the Russian prospect when he was traded to Lightning in 2014 and started skateboarding with Kucherov and Valtteri Filppula. But the glimpses he saw of Kucherov’s ability, and that of the other young players on the team, convinced him to sign an extension in Tampa.
“As a young player, he was skillful, but it’s clearly not what he is now. It takes confidence but it also takes time to understand the league. To understand what you can and can’t do. You move and when you don’t,” Callahan said.
“It takes time. It’s funny how everyone looks at the league now, and everyone expects these guys to light it up in their first year or two. If they don’t, that’s bankruptcy, right?” He completed. “Well, not every player like Conor McDavid or Austin Matthews can jump into the league and take control. Some players, it just takes a little bit longer.”
Things started to turn for Kucherov in 2014-15, his second season, thanks to “The Triplets,” a streak he formed with quarterback Tyler Johnson and winger Ondrej Palat. It was one of the most effective triples of the past decade in the NHL: Lightning scored about 67% of goals at the same strength when their streak was on the ice in both the regular season and the playoffs, as Tampa Bay went to the Stanley Cup Final before losing to Chicago.
(Johnson, the third “triple”, had moved due to salary-cover concerns, and now plays for the Chicago Blackhawks.)
Kucherov first scored 30 goals in 2015-2016, and then scored 40 goals in 2016-2017. The following season was his first 100-point campaign, which coincided with a major development in his game: his playmaking abilities, as he scored 61 assists that season.
“The part of his game that probably doesn’t get enough credit is his playmaking abilities. Everyone talks about his shot, his release and things like that. But his patience with the disc and his ability to find teammates was probably something that was difficult for me,” Callahan said. “I grew up in this department. He has learned how to attract defenders and find teammates when they are open. He sees ice well.”
The crime was there. But Kucherov, and many of his colleagues, did not yet understand what Cooper was trying to instill in them: this ultimate success for the team should begin with a championship-level defense.
“Coach isn’t just an example of that,” Callahan said. “I think he’s probably the best example of that.”
“There’s no doubt that there was a little fight between him and Cope. They head-butted sometimes, trying to figure it out. But he made him buy into this system. You have to do that to win. And we didn’t win.”
In fact, Lightning had to lose in an epic way to fully commit to it – a loss that specifically embarrassed Kucherov.
Cooper admits he can’t stop talking about 2019.
That was rock bottom at the heart of Lightning, an embarrassing first-round sweep by the Columbus Blue Jackets after the Lightning posted the second-best regular season in NHL history. Perhaps not by chance, it was also one of the worst performances in Kucherov’s career. He went goalless in games 1 and 2, then was suspended for the third game after a reckless strike from behind on Columbus defender Marcos Notivara in the third inning with Tampa trailing 5-1.
The NHL Department of Player Safety described the strike as an example of “messaging” late in the game and with the series gone: “While we understand that frustration often occurs at the end of the game, dangerous or retaliatory plays given in the final playoff minutes will be shown in context and punish accordingly.”
Kucherov went back to Game 4 and got two passes, but the damage was done – to Lightning’s playoff hopes and to his ego.
“You look at the frustration of all of us in that series,” Cooper said. “Coach was one of them. He got suspended in one of those games out of frustration.” “Now, did that moment change him? I think there were some small moments before that and then it all came to fruition for what we have as a player today. That’s growth.”
The Lightning has played 10 playoffs since then. They have won all of them. Kucherov has played 62 playoffs since then. He scored at least one point out of 44 of them. But it’s not just his production that sets him apart, but his overall play.
“You’re watching him now, and he’s checking it out really hard,” Callahan said. “He’s always in the right place. And I think he’s learned that by doing that, by worrying about his D-zone, it’s opening him up to more abuse.” “He’s evolved over the years. I don’t think he came into the league and blew everyone’s pants off as a great player. But he’s evolved into that.”
This development led to moments like the one in Game 3 against Rangers. He scored a goal in the power of play to cut the progress of Rangers 2-0. He helped create a Stamkos goal early in the third half to tie the match. Then his tactile passes came to Palat for the winner of the match.
“Coach did some unrealistic plays,” said defender Victor Hedman. “She sees Koch in the hole and tries to give him a disc. Unreal pass to Bali.”
Cooper said it’s the kind of performance expected of a star player who is his fiercest critic.
“The only person who gets frustrated is himself,” Cooper said. “That’s probably the only thing I have to coach.”
“He’s won the Hart Cup, he’s been an electrifying player, he’s got two Stanley Cup rings. When you get that far, these teams have these types of players. That’s what Coach is. He’s a unique and special talent. But any time you’re The last team standing, there is one player or maybe two who break the game. And it is for us.”