The Tampa Bay Lightning’s first line consists of Vladislav Namestnikov, Steven Stamkos, and Nikita Kucherov, and they’ve been together since the beginning of the season. Head coach Jon Cooper has stacked his two best forwards on the same line and given them the perfect complimentary player to accent their skills.
We know that Stamkos is an elite shooter. He’s arguably the second best goal scorer of his generation behind Alex Ovechkin. But in the past couple of years, he’s had trouble gelling with his linemates in the same way that he did with Martin St. Louis.
Before the season, I wrote that I thought Kucherov could be Stamkos’ new St. Louis, the player we thought Jonathan Drouin would be. It’s kind of ended up to be the opposite. St. Louis was always a pretty good scorer with Stamkos and often got up into the 30-goal range. But St. Louis was always a playmaker first, helping to set up Stamkos from all over the ice. Kucherov has the elite IQ and the playmaking skill to set up Stamkos like St. Louis did. But he’s an even better shooter than St. Louis was.
With Kucherov riding a hot stick, Stamkos has deferred more to Kucherov in the early going. That is a trend that shouldn’t continue and hopefully Stamkos will get a little more greedy as he dials his sights in and the goals will start flowing. But even while he’s getting his accuracy right, he has been on the mark when it comes to passing the puck.
Only twice in Stamkos’ career has he finished with more assists than goals, one of those seasons coming last year when he only played 17 games and the other when he had one more assist than goals scored. So far this year, he’s already racked up 10 assists to his two goals.
Namestnikov has also gotten in on the act. With his speed and hockey smarts, and with teams focusing in on his more dangerous linemates, Namestnikov has gotten space to work with and made the most of it.
Namestnikov has three goals in seven games. The past three seasons it took him 16, 8, and 11 games to get to three goals. But even when he’s not scoring goals, he’s picking up assists with four in the first seven games for seven points overall. In those previous three season in the time it took him to get to three goals, he had 6, 4, and 4 points.
The Stamkov line is off to a hot start. Their hockey IQ has them buzzing around the ice and have kept them the most consistent of the Lightning’s lines. They’ve carried that over to the first power play unit where they team up with Alex Killorn and Victor Hedman to create even more nightmare match-ups for defenders.
The line has combined for 13 goals, 18 assists, and 31 points in just seven games. Only four goals, 8 assists, and 12 points have come on the power play with the trio doing a lot of damage at even strength. Unfortunately, this level of performance won’t last all season, though if it did, they could break some records and win some major awards doing so. But it’s a good sign that they can compete and be one of the best lines in hockey throughout the year. Is another Rocket Richard on the way for the Lightning? Or maybe the team’s second Art Ross trophy? Time will tell.