Two nights ago in Carolina, Nikita Kucherov of the Tampa Bay Lightning scored with four seconds left to put the finishing touches on a 5-1 win and extend his point streak to 10 games. Steven Stamkos, who earned the assist, had already kept his own 10-game streak alive with a helper earlier in the game.
It was the kind of goal that would have likely had Hurricanes coach Bill Peters staring at his laptop and shaking his head at his team’s defensive coverage. But more importantly, that goal epitomized the remarkable transformation that Stamkos is making in his game and how it could help make Kucherov a superstar and the Lightning the most dangerous team in hockey.
If you predicted before the season began that 10 games in Stamkos would be leading the NHL with 20 points, go the head of the class and collect your gold star. If you predicted he would do that while scoring only three goals, go directly to Hockey University and accept your PhD. Yes, Steven Stamkos, the winner of two Rocket Richard Trophies and one of the most dynamic goal scorers of his generation, has become an elite set-up man. It’s almost eerie to think that Stamkos could very well become the second coming of Martin St-Louis, who was Stamkos’ own primary set-up man when he was leading the league in goals.
On the goal in Carolina, you see Stamkos take a drop pass from Kucherov at the blueline to gain the zone. Instead of driving between the backchecking forward Victor Rask and Hurricanes defenseman Noah Hanifin and going to the net, Stamkos instead shows remarkable patience and swings behind the net. By this time, Kucherov has put himself into a prime scoring position and Stamkos sees him and passes to the slot, where Kucherov shoots it off the post before it hits Carolina goalie Scott Darling and goes in the net.
If you break down Stamkos’ 17 assists this season, you see that the majority of them are situations where he’s looking for the open man, in most cases Kucherov. They’re not off rebounds from his shots or instances where he’s driving the net. Perhaps it has something to do with the injuries that have limited him to just 27 games the past two seasons, but it looks as though Stamkos has transformed his game into one that relies more on creativity and smarts than net direction. And he’s smart enough to know that in Kucherov, he has one of the best triggermen in the game. Of Kucherov’s 11 goals this season, Stamkos has assisted on nine of them and of those nine, six have been primary assists. Kucherov has scored in all but one game, Stamkos has at least one assist in all but one game and has multiple assists in seven games.
“To be honest, I think having ‘Kooch’ on his line has taken the pressure off (Stamkos) to have to put the puck in the net every single time,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper told thn.com. “Steven’s thinking now is, ‘Hey, I can put the puck in the net, but I also have a guy with me who can put the puck in the net.’ ”
In Cooper’s mind that has both helped and hurt Stamkos and Kucherov, since there are times when they pass up scoring opportunities to feed the other player the puck. But we’re only 10 games in and this is a work in progress. Until this time, Kucherov has played most of his career with former Triplet Line mates Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat, so this dynamic between him and Stamkos is developing. But Cooper said the best thing about it is both players are aware of their potential once they harness it. “They’re not dumb about it,” Cooper said. “They’re like, ‘Hey, I know this guy can put the puck in the net and I know I can get it to him.’ ”
Stamkos has alluded to the fact that he sees a lot of similarities between the chemistry he shares with Kucherov being similar to what he had with St-Louis. Cooper had a front-row seat for that show early in his Lightning tenure as well and sees how well the two have meshed early this season. No two players can have exactly the same chemistry and that’s the case with Stamkos and Kucherov. Instead of being the one waiting for the perfect pass, Stamkos is more often than not on the giving end of it.
“Different chemistry,” Cooper said. “Chemistry, yes, in the true sense of the word. But it was always Marty looking for Stammer. And now it’s different because Stammer is looking for ‘Kooch’. It’s almost a role reversal, but on the chemistry side of things, yeah, they have a really, really good feel for each other.”
Not only does that have the potential to make Stamkos and Kucherov the most dangerous duo in the league, it also gives the Lightning an enormous amount of weaponry. Should Kucherov ever hit a dry spell, well, Cooper knows he has a former Rocket Richard winner on that line who is a prolific scorer. Just because Stamkos isn’t scoring goals doesn’t mean he can’t score goals anymore. It’s just that he realizes he has more value to the Lightning in being the one to set them up for Kucherov to knock them down.
It’s all worked out very well for the Lightning. And the presence of Vladislav Namestnikov on that line has been a boon. Namestnikov always seems to be around the puck and seems to swallow up giveaways in the defensive zone, which helps start the plays that Stamkos and Kucherov are making. “He’s been a puck hound, he’s been a retriever,” Cooper said.
So here we are, just 10 games into the season and Kucherov, a 40-goal scorer last season, is battling Alex Ovechkin for the goal lead in the NHL. The Lightning are winning and looking downright scary in doing so. Buckle up, because this could end up being a very fun ride.