One might look at the end-of-year numbers for Nikita Kucherov in 2013-14 with the Tampa Bay Lightning and feel unimpressed and underwhelmed.
After all, though he lit the AHL on fire on a line with Vladislav Namestnikov for the Syracuse Crunch in the first month of the season, he managed just 9 goals and 9 assists for 18 points in 52 games played as a rookie.
But for a 20-year old (he turned 21 in June) getting his first taste of the professional grind, Kucherov truly was much better than the end result of his offensive numbers -- he displayed the gamebreaking speed and skill that's rare in today's NHL, routinely blowing by NHL defenders and creating scoring chances seemingly at will. Low 5v5 minutes on a line with defensive centerman Nate Thompson and some bad shooting luck were really all that held Kucherov back from a much, much bigger rookie season.
Here's how the panel ranked him:
|Kyle Alexander||John Fontana||Clare Austin||Mike Gallimore||Clark Brooks|
Last Year's Rank: 15
That makes Nikita Kucherov one of our biggest risers this year. The 2nd round pick from the 2011 NHL Entry Draft has always displayed offensive skill, but had some red flags heading into his draft year including lack of physical play, some questions of work ethic, and the omnipresent "Russian effect", as his willingness to come over to North America was simply an unknown. Those things didn't make GM Steve Yzerman or Director of Amateur Scouting Al Murray shy away, however, and after a standout overage year in the QMJHL (scoring over 2 points per game) they're looking very smart for taking the risk on the dynamic Russian.
With the Lightning forward roster set at the beginning of the year and a desire to let Kucherov play a top-line role in Syracuse over a bottom-line role in Tampa, he began the season in Syracuse, where he was as dominant as he had been in junior. But then the Steven Stamkos injury happened, and offense -- from whatever forward position -- needed to be replaced by offense in order for the NHL club to remain competitive. He was called up on November 25 for a contest against the New York Rangers, and you might just remember his very first shift in the NHL:
We'll give Rick Peckham a pass on calling him "Dmitry", as the Lightning had just called up Dmitry Korobov as well for that game, and in spite of all the success Kucherov has had at lower levels no one could have guessed he'd score on his first shot of his first shift of his first NHL game.
Looking at Kucherov's season overall, you might be tempted to call him "inconsistent" or "streaky"; in reality, Kucherov was most often simply unlucky, and not to blame for a lack of gaudy point totals. Kucherov played a ton of minutes on a de facto checking line with Nate Thompson and J.T. Brown, which held him back some; that didn't stop him from generating a ton of offense off the rush but it likely hurt his overall point totals not playing with a more offense-first center.
The real issue was some bad shooting luck -- J.T. Brown's luckless 2013-14 campaign has been well-documented, Nate Thompson isn't exactly a noted sniper, and Kucherov in particular was, for whatever reason, the master of the unconverted breakaway. All of that added up to the Lightning shooting just 5.54% at 5v5 with him on the ice, which is well below league average and could reasonably be expected to go up in 2014-15 just based on variance alone. If he gets the opportunity to play extended 5v5 time with one of Steven Stamkos, Valtteri Filppula, or Tyler Johnson, the point totals could skyrocket -- he's that talented. Pair the skill with a bigger opportunity and you have a recipe for a very strong sophomore season.
It's hard to say exactly what caused the finishing problem for Kucherov last year. The reality is he generated scoring chances at an incredible rate and he's too talented to keep doing that without seeing better outcomes in the long run. Look no further than his prowess in the shootout, where he converted 3 of 8 attempts (37.5%), finishing second on the Lightning in both conversion percentage and total shootout goals scored, and tied for first with two game-deciding goals in the skills competition. Love it or hate it, Kucherov (along with Valtteri Filppula) was an asset in the shootout and his skills there were too good for him to continue to struggle in similar situations at 5v5.
Like almost every other player in the Lightning system (no, really, 64 guys are going) Kucherov is getting prepped for training camp. He'll have every opportunity to stick with the Lightning again out of camp after staying up in the NHL the entire season following his recall in November of last year. But the waiver status of some other guys on the bubble -- like Brett Connolly and Richard Panik -- could actually force him down to Syracuse for at least part of the 2014-15 season, even if he's outstanding at camp, simply because he's waiver-exempt and because the Lightning won't risk losing other guys for nothing.