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All-Star: The case for Nikita Kucherov

Lightning fans know the Russian Assassin is an All-Star. It’s time for the league to honor him with that title.

Tampa Bay Lightning v Pittsburgh Penguins - Game Five Photo by Matt Kincaid/Getty Images

Steven Stamkos has been the Tampa Bay Lightning’s perennial pick for the All-Star Game for years. He is the face of the franchise and a superstar whose popularity extends far beyond Tampa. With Stamkos’ injury making him ineligible to attend this year’s festivities, another deserving player will represent the team at the All-Star Game.

Ben Bishop, Victor Hedman, Tyler Johnson, and Nikita Kucherov are the players listed on the ballot. Of the four contenders, Kucherov is the clear choice. He leads the Lightning by virtually every metric: points, goals, assists, power play goals, power play points, and game winning goals - just to name a few. It’s difficult to imagine that the 23-year-old right winger has only been in the league for three years.

He made his debut in November of 2013 against Henrik Lundqvist and the Rangers, and it’s safe to say he made a good impression on his very first shift in the NHL. Now he’s playing confidently next to Alex Ovechkin for his national team.

He’s come a long way from the days of Rick Peckham calling him “Dmitry Kucherov.” In just three short years, he has become the Lightning’s premier offensive weapon. He is a constant and consistent threat to the opposition, earning the respect of players and coaches alike. Kucherov’s game has grown significantly since he first joined the Bolts. He always had offensive prowess, but he has dedicated time to become a defensively-responsible 200-foot player. It’s an aspect of his game that is often overlooked, but one that Coach Jon Cooper believes has been integral to his emergence as one of the best players in the league.

Well, Kuch is one of those players. He’s extremely dynamic. If you saw the goal he scored the other night, it was like he was shot out of a gun when he went down the ice. He can just make plays at a really high rate of speed. The one thing for him is he has the ability to make other guys better. If you look at this goal-to-assist ratio, usually he’s got a few more goals and a few less assists, but he’s really helping his teammates out. ‘Cause pucks are going to go in for him and we just keep telling him, “You gotta keep shooting the puck.” Be more selfish because when he shoots the puck, it has eyes. As I said, he makes everybody around him better. He’s one of the most dynamic players in this league. The biggest thing for me is, “How do you play away from the puck and how are you playing in your own end?” All that other stuff he has - all those other abilities - they just blossom when he’s in the offensive zone, but “What’re you doing away from that? How are you getting yourself into position to play offense?” That’s where he’s really grown the last couple of years. Now I play him in every situation - up a goal, down a goal - he can see the ice. - Jon Cooper

For the first part of this season, he formed a dynamic duo with Steven Stamkos. The two skilled forwards complemented each other perfectly.

After losing Stamkos to injury, the burden of goal-scoring fell squarely on the shoulders of Kucherov. While many players would crack under that kind of pressure, Kucherov thrived. Just as he did last year in the playoffs, he showed that he’s ready for the spotlight. He’s ready to carry this team. He will show up in the waning seconds of a period to score a back-breaking goal that truly changes the dynamic of a game.

In all honesty, Kucherov scores so often that many fans just expect him to find the back of the net when the team needs it the most. That’s part of what makes Kucherov such an elite player. He scores big goals in big moments.

Lightning fans probably don’t realize how fortunate they are to have landed such a talent with the 58th overall pick in the second round of the 2011 NHL Entry Draft. Every team in the NHL passed on him once, with 27 teams passing on him twice before he fell into the lap of General Manager Steve Yzerman.

Ever since he arrived, he has done nothing but work tirelessly to help this team win. He is an integral part of the elusive “core” of the team that Yzerman built. Kucherov has always been a silent assassin, choosing to allow his play to speak for him. After signing a three-year contract extension to stay with the Lightning, he did answer a few questions that shed some light on his commitment to this team.

I’m just happy to be here. I’m happy that the whole situation with the contract has been resolved. I’m back with my teammates and getting ready to win a Stanley Cup. - Kucherov

Those were the first words out of his mouth at the press conference. You can hear the confidence in his voice. He doesn’t say he’s getting ready to try to win a Stanley Cup. No, he’s getting ready to win a Stanley Cup. He is a focused competitor with a singular ambition, to lead the Lightning to victory. Kucherov has shown a commitment to that mission every time he steps onto the ice. It is that unrelenting passion for winning that has made him a favorite among fans. He’s earned their respect and admiration. It’s time to reward that effort.

Kucherov will never ask for a spot on the All-Star Team. In fact, it’s probably something that doesn’t even cross his mind. He’s too busy carrying the Bolts to a winning record and another playoff berth. The fact remains that he has earned this honor. In the grand scheme of things the All-Star Game doesn’t mean very much, but it’s a small way to show the Russian Assassin that his unrelenting effort is recognized and appreciated.

Spend some time to cast a ballot for Kucherov - it’s the least you can do to support the man who is “getting ready to win a Stanley Cup” for the Tampa Bay Lightning.