Nikita Kucherov’s benching overshadows Anthony Cirelli’s heroics

It’s not every day a league MVP gets benched.

As brilliant as Anthony Cirelli’s individual effort was in last night’s win for the Tampa Bay Lightning over the Ottawa Senators, the big story will be around Jon Cooper’s decision to bench Nikita Kucherov for most of the third period and overtime. It was a move by a coach to showcase accountability on his team. The issue lies in the idea of, “why now?”

Why, after 32 games, does Cooper bench the league’s reigning MVP in a game that Tampa Bay dearly needed to win? Many will point toward Kucherov’s egregious turnover that led to Anthony Duclair’s 19th goal of the season, and there would be no argument in that regard. However, Tampa Bay’s struggles go far beyond number 86 getting too cute with the puck.

You could cite numerous gaffes by any player this season and say, “Well he wasn’t benched,” and you’d be right in that assessment. However, it seems Kucherov’s turnover to Duclair was the final straw for Cooper. When asked about Kucherov’s benching, Cooper didn’t hesitate in his answer, “As a coach you have to make decisions and what was best for us to win tonight. It was our decision. He’s a huge part of our team, it could be anybody.”

When this quote was shared with the public, predictably the pile on was quick. Which, for a turnover as egregious as Kucherov’s, is understandable, especially since he is the team leader in turnovers (32). But the idea that Kucherov has been a turnover machine compared to the rest of the league is hyperbolic. Kucherov’s 32 turnovers ranks 58th in the league. Players near the top of this dubious list? David Pastrnak (52), Connor McDavid (48), Matthew Barzal (53), Erik Karlsson (52), etc. This isn’t to excuse Kucherov, but to bring perspective from outside of the Lightning’s bubble.

Additionally, when it comes to creative playmakers (like some of the aforementioned players in the previous paragraph), turnovers are expected and something you have to live with. Martin St. Louis is a legend in the Lightning organization and was consistently near the top of the turnover list. Kucherov will always be this kind of player. If you’ve celebrated his career up to this point, it’s something you’re well aware of. Take the good with the bad.

My own personal take was that Cooper’s decision was more all encompassing. More of a message sent to the rest of the team that regardless of who you are, you have to be responsible with the puck—something this team has struggled to do this year. This was Kucherov’s only mistake of the evening, and interestingly, this play wasn’t marked as a giveaway for Kucherov,. It was marked as a takeaway by Duclair on the official scoresheet (not that this means anything, just something I noticed).

Another layer to this decision is that Kucherov was skating circles around the Senators last night too. Numerous times he was along the boards or deep in the offensive zone wreaking havoc with his forecheck, stick handling ability, and passing. Still, that play high in the offensive zone as the last man back was an egregious mistake, one that Kucherov has to realize before he tries to dangle through another player.

There was also some speculation and discussion about Kucherov’s response to the benching. After the win, Kucherov only congratulated Andrei Vasilevskiy and then skated off the ice.

Writer’s Edit: Kucherov was on the ice to congratulate his teammates after Cirelli’s overtime game winner. When writing the article, I had not seen the tweet showing him with the team.

Obviously, he’d be upset with Cooper’s decision (any player would be), but piling on or speculating anything more due to Kucherov’s body language and response during the game is a dangerous and irresponsible slope to be on. Kucherov has always struggled with body language when things don’t go well, some might argue that given Kucherov’s highly competitive nature he cares too much, but his effort should never be in question, nor his commitment. He should be rightfully criticized for his turnover, but anything beyond that is unfounded.

What this move circles back to is accountability. Something that Cooper has been maligned for during his tenure as coach. To his credit, he (and his coaching staff) took a huge step forward with Kucherov’s benching. He also took blame for a late line change in overtime that saw Jean-Gabriel Pageau get a breakaway in overtime stating, “I’ll own that a little bit. I think I was a little late on the lines because we were kind of getting chances and I think I was caught up in the game a little bit and we were late on the jump and missed an assignment.”

The opposite side of Kucherov’s benching is that, as bad of a play as his was, he is still nowhere near the problem on Tampa Bay, and there is a litany of players who deserved to be sat before him this season. Does this move risk alienating Kucherov? If your mindset is focused on a pessimistic viewpoint and on Cooper’s favoritism toward “his” players then you can view it that way. However, given how over-reactionary many are, I’d suggest a more levelheaded approach. Kucherov is a professional and will likely put the benching behind him. I wouldn’t expect Cooper to limit Kucherov’s ice-time on Thursday against Dallas, or for Kucherov to simply stop caring. If there is a problem, then the two of them will handle it behind closed doors and move on like the professionals they are.