Tuesday December 22nd, 2015

ARLINGTON, Va. — Four years after he first came to North America and began learning a new language, there are still times when particular Tampa Bay teammates wish that Nikita Kucherov communicated more. His ability to speak English has not only swung the pendulum between winning and losing, but also life and death.

Well … at least on the virtual battlefield of Call of Duty.

“He’s one of those guys who, if he’s with you and he gets killed, he doesn’t necessarily tell you someone’s behind him,” Lightning forward Tyler Johnson says. “You end up dying too, which we get on him for. But he’s getting better.”

It’s true. Whether donning helmets or headsets, wielding curved blades or joysticks, slapping pucks or shooting enemies, the 22-year-old Kucherov has indeed progressed. During the most recent NHL lockout of 2012-13, he was just a teenager immigrating into the unfamiliar world of Canadian juniors, a second-round draft pick by Tampa Bay whose mere arrival defied many expectations. In 2013-14, he was scratched during the playoffs and made to observe from the press box during two of Tampa Bay’s four games while Montreal swept the Lightning. “I think it was a little bit of the school of hard knocks for him,” head coach Jon Cooper says, and even 16 months ago there was internal curiosity over whether Kucherov would even make the opening-night roster.

NHL
NHL Roundtable: Best game, player, moments and zany quote of 2015

But look at him now, a breakout superstar during Tampa Bay’s run to the Stanley Cup Final last spring and one of the NHL’s leaders in even-strength goals-for percentage since last season. He has separated from his two linemates, the famously nicknamed, “Triplets” unit, but continued to grow and is currently ranked second on the banged-up Lightning in points (23) and goals (12). He will enter restricted free agency next spring and is certainly due a raise from his entry-level salary, though his agent says discussions with the team aren’t expected until the season ends.

Off the ice, as Kucherov acclimates to life here, teammates say his personality has emerged. At first, once he reached the NHL in 2013-14 after just 17 games in the minors, he spent his days quietly observing Tampa Bay’s leaders, such as Martin St. Louis and Steve Stamkos. “I wasn’t even saying anything,” Kucherov recalls. “I was just looking around the room, watching guys, enjoying my time.” Behind the scenes, to better understand English, he watched television shows like Blue Mountain State, Shameless, and The Walking Dead — respectively, a comedy about a frat-house football team; a drama-comedy about an alcoholic father and his family; and the popular show set during the zombie apocalypse.

“He’s a pretty laid-back guy, always cruising around in his sweatpants and high-tops,” Stamkos says. “He’s a go-with-the-flow kind of guy. He doesn’t like all the attention, but he’s definitely a guy who, you could tell, from where he was to where he is now, it’s pretty much night-and-day, wanting to go out with the guys for dinner, wanting to hang out with the guys on the road and stuff like that. It’s nice to see.”

Nikita Kucherov never envisioned this particular path. Sure, he dreamt of reaching the NHL, the ultimate goal every player shares. Since games weren’t available on TV at his childhood home, two hours outside Sochi, he idolized Detroit’s famed “Russian Five” — forwards Sergei FedorovIgor Larionov and Vyacheslav Kozlov, and defensemen Vladimir Konstantinov and Viacheslav Fetisov — and taped a poster of them onto his wall, where it still hangs today. As for immigrating stateside while still in his teens and joining the Quebec Remparts in Canadian juniors? “I wasn’t even thinking about that,” Kucherov says.

The eventual leap was influenced by a few different sources, all of them necessary for Kucherov to leave CSKA Moscow, his KHL club, and link up with then-head coach Patrick Roy in Quebec. First came Nail Yakupov, who joined the OHL’s Sarnia Sting in 2010-11, the same season that Kucherov debuted with CSKA. Born four months apart, Kucherov began watching highlights of Yakupov online and took notice of the raucous atmosphere. “I was realizing how much fun they had here,” Kucherov says, “how much people loved hockey.” 

In the KHL, Kucherov was not having fun. “They wouldn’t let me play there,” he says. “I don't know why. They probably thought I wasn’t good enough or something.”

NHL
Evgeny Romasko, NHL’s first Russian referee, learning on the fly

Across two seasons with CSKA, Kucherov played in just 26 games, mostly on the fourth line, and notched six points. And though CSKA ultimately agreed to release him from his contract so he could play for the Remparts, he says the team didn’t pay for his medical bills after he needed shoulder surgery, leaving a sour taste that lingers to this day. “I was pissed,” he says. “I wanted to play here. I wanted to be here, come over to Canada and play here, and one day in the NHL.”

Ironically, the reasons why Kucherov chose Quebec ultimately sparked his exit after only six games under Roy, who also worked as GM. The Remparts had imported Russians at a strong clip under Roy, including Mikhail Grigorenko, their leading goal-scorer in 2011-12. The next season, Kucherov’s first in North America, coincided with the NHL lockout, which kept Grigorenko in juniors until training camp opened in January. This presented Roy with a dilemma. Between Grigorenko, Kucherov and Danish forward Nick Sorensen, Quebec had three foreign import players, one more than it was allowed to dress. Kucherov found himself scratched, then soon traded to Rouyn-Noranda, where he lived in a relatively small area that mostly spoke French.

Now helming the bench for the Colorado Avalanche, Roy looks across the league at his former player—the one who always showed an eagerness to learn despite the language barrier, the one who left a distinct impression even after logging just six games in Quebec—and sees nothing surprising about what happened next.

“Every time he’s on the ice, he’s dangerous,” Roy says. “He’s capable of sneaking behind. His IQ is really, really good. Off-the-charts. He sees the ice, he can sneak behind our Ds, he finds ways to get open. It’s impressive.”

The Triplets: Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson and Nikita Kucherov
The Triplets: Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson and Nikita Kucherov
Scott Audette/Getty Images

The following statistic isn’t tracked anywhere, but it can be safely surmised:

Between appearing in all eight of Tampa Bay’s exhibitions, all 82 of its regular-season games, and 26 more in the playoffs, no one played more last season than Nikita Kucherov.

At first, this was calculated. Kucherov had entered training camp on the roster bubble, motivated after his healthy scratches against the Canadiens the previous spring. He had undeniable offensive talent, but Cooper and the Lightning needed to see more on the other end. Simply put, the staff had questions. “When he came back the next year, you’re sitting there saying, ‘Has Kuch bought into the defensive aspect of the game?’ And he completely did,” Cooper says. “We always told him, the goal-scoring comes natural. You don’t need to sit here and harp on that. It’s the other parts of his game. When he figured that out, he was always on the right side of pucks.

“And then, eventually, he met Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat and they took off from there.”

NHL
Most undersung players of the 2015-16 NHL season... so far

The Triplets were born on a late-October night in Winnipeg, when injuries forced Cooper to slide Kucherov beside Johnson and Palat, two former Calder Trophy finalists who had bonded from two AHL seasons together. By that time, Kucherov was averaging just under 11 minutes per night on the fourth line with two assists in seven games, but the promotion sparked instant production—and, thanks to their chemistry, a nickname. “You don’t have a big opportunity to talk or anything after that, but for whatever reason our chemistry was there right away,” Johnson says. Kucherov dropped three assists on the Jets, a hat trick four days later against Arizona, and notched his 60th point on March 30 at Bell Centre in Montreal. His seven multi-point games during the playoffs tied with Johnson, Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews for the league lead.

“It’s worked out for us,” Kucherov says. “I was doing my part, Johnny and Pally were doing their job. All together, we just understand, we know where everybody’s going to be.”

Somewhere along the way, the tenor of Kucherov’s regular film sessions with Cooper changed. Early on, the coach focused more on correcting Kucherov’s mistakes and explaining to him how he could avoid healthy scratches. But once Kucherov, Johnson and Palat got together, the line started watching film as a trio, discussing subtle tweaks to their offensive-zone methods to generate more scoring chances.

“As a coach, I trusted him, and I told him I trusted him. He’s got to trust me on how I use him. And if he keeps doing those things, he’s going to play more minutes … And he played more minutes,” Cooper says with a beat and a smile.

Rocky Widner/Getty Images

As the Lightning lurched from the starting blocks this season, winning just 11 of their first 25 games, another obstacle came Kucherov’s way. On Nov. 7, Palat injured his ankle, recovered for a month, returned for two games and got hurt again on Dec. 12, both times because opposing players landed on his left leg. Johnson, meanwhile, has missed nine games and most recently re-aggravated an undisclosed issue on Dec. 10. Both have begun skating again, but their absences left Kucherov without his familiar surroundings.

“Eventually I think they became their own security blanket,” Cooper says. “Nobody got injured last year. If they did, maybe it’d be for one game and they were right back together … But then eventually two of them got hurt, and long-term hurt. Now you’ve got to adapt. You don’t have your siblings.” 

NHL
Most likely free agency destinations for Lightning sniper Steven Stamkos

Paired instead with Stamkos and 23-year-old Russian Vladislav Namestnikov, Kucherov has 10 points in nine games this month, including a nifty primary assist in the first period in D.C. on Dec. 18, when the Lightning staked a 3–0 lead and chased Vezina Trophy contender Braden Holtby. But the league-leading Capitals peeled off five unanswered goals, including four on six shots. “A tough one to swallow,” Cooper lamented afterward, near the quiet visiting locker room.

Tampa Bay rebounded at home two nights later, when Kucherov recorded his 10th and 11th assists this season in a 5–2 win over Ottawa. Both were primary helpers, first on the power play and then for an empty-netter, and both went to Stamkos, who was busy shaking aside his own goal drought with help from his new linemate.

“He really blossomed,” Stamkos says. “I think he was the guy that probably went under the radar the most, but has really stayed consistent in his play.”

Well, maybe not in Call of Duty.

“I’m fine,” Kucherov says. “I’m not that good.”

But he is getting better.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.