While Buffalo Sabres’ top center, Jack Eichel, was out with a high-ankle sprain for 21 games during the 2016-17 season, he had the opportunity to watch tons of hockey. Not just up in a suite or press box, but on television as well. In an interview, the now 21-year old was asked about a current player he watches or would model after. Of the Crosby’s and Ovechkin’s of the world, the budding star named another: Nikita Kucherov. As an offensively creative player, Eichel was impressed by the skills on display by the Tampa Bay winger en route to an 85-point season. It is easy to be in the shadows on a team that has Steven Stamkos as the premier scorer but Kucherov is proving to keep pace with the Lightning’s star center through 28 games of the current season. The young forward from Maykop, Russia may not have been a household name around the NHL, being selected 58th overall in the 2011 Entry Draft, but it is no surprise to some that he is starting to be.
The big names of the 2011 Draft were Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (EDM), Gabriel Landeskog (COL), and Adam Larsson (NJ, now EDM) but it is possible that Nikita Kucherov is the best player to come from that draft. Seeing the 24-year old follow a great campaign with 40 points in 28 games makes one question why the he had fallen to the second round, to be snagged by the Tampa Bay Lightning. The “Hockey Writers” webpage includes an amateur scouting report on Kucherov stating that he was “an electric, explosive and dynamic offensive force with elite level speed.” Despite being smaller, which many teams have considered weak or periphery players, he was described to “not be a physical force” but did not “shy away from the dirty areas” and was “not content with playing a perimeter game.”
So again, what was the issue that kept him out of the first-round, considering the potential that the young man possessed? It was the Russian factor. He was committed to playing in Russia for at least two years at the time and many teams were afraid that the player would stay for the KHL. But that all would change.
Kucherov would decide to forego another season in Russia to learn the North American game in Quebec Major Junior league in 2012. If it was about learning, he did it fast, amassing 63 points in 33 junior games. But was that good enough to play older and more developed professional hockey players?
Junior hockey success does not always translate to professional success, even for high draft picks. Success, however, was what was achieved by Kucherov while playing for the Syracuse Crunch of the American Hockey League. Matthew Coller, an ESPN radio personality in Minnesota, recounted his observation of the AHL rookie while covering the Rochester Americans in a game during the 2013-14 season.
“Nikita Kucherov played the best AHL game I’ve ever seen. It was in Syracuse in 2014, I believe. I wasn’t that familiar with him as a second-round pick, but he was easily the best player on the ice for all 60 minutes. He did everything. Carried the puck, made nifty passes, protected the puck from defenders and beat the Amerks’ goalies easily on his two goals. His release was something I’d never seen from an AHL player. After the game, Amerks coach Chadd Cassidy marveled at his talent. It wasn’t long after that he was called up to the Lightning and nobody who covered that game was surprised to see him become a star.”
On Twitter, I remember following people like Matthew and Kevin Oklobzija, of the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle at the time, who were amazed at the offensive talent he exuded, with Matthew repeating that Kucherov may be the best offensive player in the AHL. After producing 13 goals and 24 points in 17 games, he would face his biggest test yet: the NHL.
The initial experience of playing in the best hockey league in the world would be humbling for Nikita Kucherov, as he would amass 18 points in 52 games. Despite scoring on his first NHL shot, it was a challenge to score at the rate he was accustomed to. It did not take him long, however, to find offensive consistency as he would produce back to back 65+ point seasons, with 29 and 30 goals, respectively. Last season, would be the 19-point jump that would lead to 40 goals, good for second in the league, and be amongst the top-five scorers in the NHL.
Most hockey fans were probably wondering who this guy was, as Steven Stamkos was the marquee player from the Lightning. The Lightning’s star center would only play the first 17 games before tearing the lateral meniscus in his right knee. Tampa Bay would need someone to step up in his absence and Nikita Kucherov was their guy, quickly making a name for himself as an elite player. Some questioned whether that he was an enigma who would not produce the same when Stamkos returned. The opposite has been true, as Kucherov has 19 goals and 40 points in 28 games to start the current campaign. If anything, he has complemented Stamkos, who is playing the role of playmaker versus goal scorer. The two dynamic forwards are leading the NHL in scoring and plan to keep the Lightning at the top of the Atlantic Division.
The truth is: scouts and media who observed Nikita Kucherov pre-draft, through his development years, and to this very day are not surprised that he became a star. They acknowledged his elite level skill as a smaller player and expected great things. A small percentage of players will ever have a significant impact on the NHL and be a difference maker for their club, regardless of draft position. Fans often expect that the players who jump in at 18 will obviously be star players. Some teams choose players on what they will be and understand that there is a road some must take to be regular, NHL players. The Tampa Bay Lightning scouting staff understood that Nikita Kucherov would be a project but it was one that was worth the wait, as they selected someone who would become the best hockey player to come from the 2011 NHL Draft and a premier scorer in the sport. Do not forget: he is just into his prime.