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Nikita Kucherov on Lightning linemates: They got their money and stopped working

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Kucherov drops bombshells in Russian interview with Sovsports.ru.

2017 NHL All-Star - Portraits Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Tampa Bay Lightning forward Nikita Kucherov gave an interview to Pavel Lysenko of Sovsports.ru that was released today. In the interview, he had some interesting comments about playing in the World Cup of Hockey as well as how his season went. It also included some sharp criticism of some teammates in Tampa. Below are a few highlights of the interview as well as some of my thoughts.

Please keep in mind that the interview was originally in Russian and as I am not proficient in Russian, I am relying on the powers of Google Translate. That means there will be some odd word choices and turns of phrase.

Update: read the full translation here.

Playing with Stamkos and Namestnikov early in the season

Q: The fact that Captain Steven Stamkos dropped out was a blow? Yes, you have more playing time, but after all Tampa became weaker.

A: At first it was hard. Because only just a line was created, I, Namestnikov, Stamkos. We were put together for 10 matches. And just in the ninth Steven was injured.

But we played very well. Established interaction. I can say that these were my top nine games for all four years in the NHL. I was very upset. Then the coaches began to change the composition, to transfer me from line to line. Partners were like in a kaleidoscope. And it's very hard to get used to, because the guys do not play at the level of Stamkos. And it's hard to explain how I played with him. I was a little did not understand. There were problems ...

Steven, I and Namestnikov were on the same wave. We thought alike. There was no need to explain something to each other about who was going to be on the site.

(Another translation is available here.)

No surprise here. That line was playing very well before Stamkos got hurt. Stamkos was also having one of his hottest starts of his career playing with that line. We’re left to wonder what-if—if Stamkos had stayed healthy and played the whole year with that line.

Complaints about teammates

Q: For example, you tell a new partner where you need to be, but he does not manage to get there with his feet.

A: I've been tormented all season. Stamkos broke down, and I could not find partners with whom there would be perfect mutual understanding. We played with Jonathan Drouin once, and it was good, but coach didn't put us together for some reason. Although when we crossed one day, the game went very well.

And there were other guys who just sat in the team. They got their money and stopped working. They knew that they had no competition, that "Tampa" would not take anyone. They did not play so well this year - this is evident from both statistics and movement. When I went out with them and gave them a pass, they did not even expect it. That's why I had a hard season, despite the statistics.

(Another translation is available here.)

Other than Kucherov, there are only three players that his comments could point to that got paid last summer: Steven Stamkos, Alex Killorn, and Victor Hedman. We can rule out Stamkos as one of the players he’s complaining about since he obviously was having a good time playing with him.

Looking at Kucherov’s WOWY (With Or Without You) stats from HockeyAnalysis.com for Hedman and Killorn can point us towards who might have been negatively impacting Kucherov’s play.

Kucherov played 1,097 minutes at 5v5. He played 496 of those minutes with Hedman on the ice. With Hedman, Kucherov scored eight goals and eight assists. With Killorn, Kucherov registered three goals and four assists. The below table has the together and apart stats for Kucherov with Hedman and Killorn.

Kucherov WOWY Stats with Hedman and Killorn

Player GF60 GA60 GF% CF60 CA60 CF%
Player GF60 GA60 GF% CF60 CA60 CF%
Killorn 3.29 2.92 52.9 55.9 51.15 52.2
w/o Killorn 3.02 1.87 61.8 61.42 48.5 55.9
Difference -0.27 -1.05 8.9 5.52 -2.65 3.7
Hedman 2.54 1.93 56.8 61.21 48.65 55.7
w/o Hedman 3.5 2.1 62.5 60.09 49.09 55
Difference 0.96 0.17 5.7 -1.12 0.44 -0.7

You can see from the table that with Killorn, Kucherov’s GF60, GA60 and CA60 were worse. But his GF%, CF60, and CF% were better with Killorn than away from him. Granted, there was a definite sample size difference with Killorn only playing with Kucherov for about 15% of Kucherov’s 5v5 ice time. Killorn was also very streaky over the season. Of the seven points Kucherov had with Killorn on the ice at even strength, Kucherov assisted on two Killorn goals and Killorn assisted on one Kucherov goal.

The story looks a little different with Hedman. Kucherov’s GF60, GA60, GF%, and CA60 were all better away from Hedman. Meanwhile his CF60 and CF% were worse without Hedman. However, in some of the other statistics like expected Goals For, Kucherov and Hedman fared well together. The duo also had points on 11 goals scored at even strength.

Any of Kucherov’s numbers away from Hedman would also be skewed more by small sample size. Considering how good Hedman’s season overall was, I don’t feel he is pointing this criticism at Hedman.

About his former Russian team CSKA

Q: Could you follow CSKA Moscow, where did you leave for the NHL?

A: I do not like watching CSKA, because the team plays a terrible hockey game. I feel sorry for the guys who are performing there. I'm only happy for Igor Ozhiganov, that he is doing well, and he is so entrenched in the basis. I only follow his successes.

Q: CSKA came to you when there was no contract?

A: No. And I would not even consider CSKA.

This is not a very big surprise. Kucherov had a falling out with CSKA after he had a shoulder injury that required surgery. CSKA reportedly refused to cover his medical expenses for the surgery. This led to him buying out the final year of his contract and coming over to play in the QMJHL with the Quebec Remparts and Rouyn-Noranda Huskies. Over the summer, I had heard whispers that CSKA had offered Kucherov a one-year contract, but from his comments it appears that wasn’t the case.

The World Cup of Hockey

Q: At the World Cup you played in different troikas. With whom were you more comfortable?

A: When near you hockey players of this class, it does not matter who to go out with. Go through the composition - the stars in each line. It was nice with everyone, and for me it was an unforgettable experience. I learned a lot from Ovechkin, Malkin, Tarasenko, Kuznetsov, Datsyuk.

Kucherov really put himself up into the upper stratosphere of Russian forwards with his performance this season. He proved that he can compete and play at the level of those very talented Russian forwards he listed. For Ovechkin, Malkin, and Datsyuk, this was the first time Kucherov had gotten to play with them.

On the trade of Nikita Nesterov

Q: How did you take the news that Tampa had exchanged Nikita Nesterov?

A: No one wants his friend to leave the team. We have become friends for all these years.

At first I was upset. But this is hockey, everything happens. With this you need to accept.

Then I was glad for Nikita. He wanted to leave, because he tried to play more. And in the Tampa he was not given this. Happy for his friend, he got a chance to show himself in Montreal. Let him enjoy the hockey. We still communicate. I wish only good luck.

The Nikitas have been friends for a while. While they did not play on a junior team together, they did compete together for Team Russia at the junior level.

On the NHL not going to the Olympics

Q: How did you react to the decision of the NHL that players will not go to the Olympics?

A: As they decide at the top, it will be so. I do not think that my opinion matters.

Of course, I would like to go to the Olympics. Since the childhood I watched the Games, all the children dream of playing for their national team. Not every year you go to such a tournament. The chance can only be once in a lifetime.

It will be a pity if they do not let us go, and someone will miss such a chance. This applies not only to me, but to all. Parents and relatives, your coaches look when you are in favor of your country, are proud of you. This is wonderful!

But understand that nothing depends on us. As they say, it will.

This is obviously sad. Kucherov was surely going to be a selection for Team Russia in the next Olympics and he has lost out on the chance to win an Olympic Gold Medal.

Will the organization have some feedback for Kucherov after this interview? What will the fallout be for these very blunt words? We’ll have to wait and see.

Update: Response from Kucherov’s Agent

Joe Smith of the Tampa Bay Times made contact with Kucherov’s new agent Dan Milstein. Here’s what he had to say about Kucherov’s comments.