Coach Jon Cooper is going to have a dilemma on his hands next season. What line is he going to put Steven Stamkos on when he’s healthy? It’s a problem that all thirty other coaches in the NHL would like to be facing, that’s for sure.
Does he reunite the Triplets (for today’s purpose, let’s pretend that all key personnel are re-signed and Mr. Yzerman Jedi-mind-tricks Las Vegas into taking Jason Garrison in the expansion draft), or does he put all of his goal scoring eggs into a Steven Stamkos/Nikita Kucherov/Lucky Left Winger basket as he had at times this season?
Imagine the Lightning being able to roll out a line that has two potential 40-goal scorers 20 minutes a night for an entire season? Would it even matter who the third person was? Dave Andreychuk could throw the skates on and pick up 40 assists between the two of those players. Or, should Coach Cooper want to make a point to keep a certain rookie from experiencing a sophomore slump, he could put this line together:
Since Kucherov entered the league in 2013-14 as a 20-year-old rookie, only Stamkos has scored more goals for the Lightning (113) than the bearded Russian. By the end of the season there is a small chance that Kucherov, who has 106 goals in that time frame, could pass him. He already has more even strength goals (75-72) than his captain. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that Kucherov scores seven more goals over the last eight games in the season. In fact, if the Lightning expect to make the playoffs, they probably need him to do just that.
Another interesting combination will be on the power play. The Lightning have had a lot of success with the trio of Kucherov, Victor Hedman and Jonathan Drouin. When Stamkos comes back, does he have a spot on that unit or would the Lightning be better off putting the captain on the other unit to balance out the scoring attack?
There is the danger that Drouin and Kucherov would defer scoring chances (if Kucherov has a flaw in his game, he does get into ruts where he tries to set up teammates instead of just taking a shot) to Stamkos. When the team does that, their power play becomes easy to defend. It might be better to let that trio do its thing and then roll Stamkos out with Tyler Johnson and Brayden Point and see what kind of magic they can deliver.
Last season, when Stamkos and Kucherov were put on the same line for a brief amount of time, Stamkos was effusive with his praise for the young winger:
“Obviously you're trying to find some balance [with lines], but any time you get a chance to play with him, it's always fun. You look at the skill set he possesses, it's the smarts, too. He knows where to put the puck. He knows where to be. He knows where to support. And when you give him the puck in scoring areas, he can put it in the back of the net."
Speaking of Stamkos, Kucherov and fun, how about this goal against the Islanders?
Before Stamkos’ knee betrayed him against Detroit, Kucherov had already scored seven goals this season — Stamkos assisted on five of them. Kucherov returned the favor by adding a helper on five of Stamkos’ nine goals in his abbreviated season. They make a pretty good duo, kind of like Paul and John.
Stamkos enjoyed the chemistry he had with Kucherov and The Russian Beiber, telling the Tampa Bay Times:
"The skill set that 'Kuch possesses is impressive. For me, it's just about finding the opening on the ice where he's going to put it. The same with [Namestnikov]. Going back to last year, we had some good chemistry. Even games we haven't gotten on the scoreboard, we probably deserved to.”
With Stamkos out of the lineup, Kucherov has emerged as the focal point of the offense, scoring 38 goals and adding 40 assists (both career highs). Whenever the Lightning have needed a big goal it seems like Kucherov was involved in some way.
Wow !! He did that twice this week in practice. pic.twitter.com/k1zo0zqsqi— Steven Stamkos (@RealStamkos91) March 5, 2017
That was a trend that started in the playoffs last year, even Stamkos’ noticed it as he told the Tampa Bay Times during the Islanders’ series:
"It's almost become a joke now. When it's in the third period and [Kucherov] hasn't scored yet, 'When is he going to score?' It's worked out so far."
Prior to the season, both players were looking for new contracts and while Stamkos’ wrapped his up fairly quickly, it took a little longer for Kucherov. It lingered until the World Cup of Hockey and Stamkos’ was asked his thoughts about it (question starts at 8:47 mark)*:
“I really hope it [Kucherov contract] gets done. He’s an unbelievable player, he’s a good buddy and someone hopefully I can play with for a long time, because I think he’s one of the best, not just best young players, but I think he’s one of the top players in the league already. He just has that drive to get better….he’s been a big part of our success in Tampa.”
Having both players on the ice firing one-timers from opposite circles would most likely be a nightmare for any goalie. Witness the two in practice feeding each other passes:
VIDEO: Stamkos and Kucherov take turns blasting one-timers. Kucherov from his favorite right circle spot. Scored three from there Monday pic.twitter.com/xKSXMwuHd1— Joe Smith (@TBTimes_JSmith) March 1, 2017
Then again, spending 45 seconds to a minute worrying about one of them only to see the other one come over the boards next wouldn’t be fun either. So, in the end, if they’re on the ice at the same time, great. If not, still great.
*Earlier in the interview Stamkos referred to him as “Ku-CHAIR-ov” continuing the debate on how to pronounce the name. You’ll notice the interviewer fires both pronunciations at Stamkos in the question.