Top 25 Under 25, #1: Surprising no one, Nikita Kucherov is elite

With an 85 points season, Kucherov broke into the elite ranks of the NHL.

The Top 25 Under 25 is a collaboration by members of the RawCharge writing staff. Four writers, plus a special guest, ranked players under the age of 25 as of September 1st, 2017 in the Tampa Bay Lightning organization. Each participant used their own metric of current ability and production against future projection to rank each player. Now, we’ll count down each of the 25 players ranked, plus Honorable Mentions.

#1 Nikita Kucherov

Only one dissenting vote kept Nikita Kucherov from being the consensus #1 overall pick for the RawCharge staff. Tom Hunter laid out his argument for Andrei Vasilevskiy over Kucherov for the number one spot and he makes a lot of great points about Vasilevskiy’s importance to the team going forward.

But Nikita Kucherov established himself among the elite forwards of the NHL in 2016-17. The 2011 second-round draft pick broke out with a campaign where he at times carried an injury-riddled Lightning line up. That was especially true over the last month and a half of the season. To see how he got here, let’s go back to the beginning of his career, back before he was even drafted.

Kucherov became the first Lightning player not named Steven Stamkos to score 40 goals since Vincent Lecavalier did it in 2007-08.

As a 16-year-old player in Russia, Kucherov played for CSKA Moscow’s MHL team, Russia’s top junior hockey league. In his first year in the MHL, he put up 29 goals and 54 points in 53 games. That put him 22nd in scoring in a league with players generally ranging from 16 to 19 years old. He was the top U17 scorer beating out Alexander Khokhlachev by 14 points.

The following season as a 17 year old, Kucherov improved to 27 goals and 58 points in just 41 games, good for 10th in the MHL. He again led his age group in scoring. He also made his KHL debut playing limited minutes in nine games for CSKA putting up two assists. He was selected to Team Russia for the U18 World Junior Championship. He absolutely dominated the competition putting up 11 goals and 21 points in just seven games on the way to a Bronze Medal.

The Lightning scouts took notice of him and Steve Yzerman took a chance on him with the 58th overall pick in the second round.

Kucherov remained in Russia for another season following his draft year. He spent a little more time in the KHL with CSKA scoring a goal and five points in 18 games. He suffered a shoulder injury and when he returned he was sent back to the MHL. As an 18 year old, he posted 24 goals and 43 points in 23 games as he dominated the Russian junior league. Only teammate Nikita Gusev had more points per game in the MHL than Kucherov in that season. He represented Team Russia during the season at the U20 World Junior Championships with two goals and seven points in seven games. The team won a Silver Medal.

Kucherov then had a disagreement with CSKA over the medical costs for his shoulder injury with CSKA reportedly refusing to pay. Kucherov bought out his contract and decided to come to North America to play in the CHL. With his intent to come to the CHL made, he went 43rd overall in the CHL Import Draft to the Quebec Remparts of the QMJHL.

With the NHL initiating a lockout of it’s players at the beginning of the 2012-13 season, a number of players, including imports, were sent back to the CHL that otherwise would have been playing in the NHL. The Remparts already had two imports in Kucherov and Nick Sorensen. With Mikhail Grigorenko being sent down by the Buffalo Sabres, Quebec now had three imports on the roster. The CHL only allows teams to dress two imports.

Quebec had a problem on their hands with three very good imports that deserved playing time. Grigorenko was too good to not play and Sorensen was two years younger than Kucherov. Knowing Kucherov would be leaving after the season and not wanting to lose Sorensen, Quebec decided to trade Kucherov to the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies. For Quebec, Kucherov had three goals and 10 points in just seven games.

With his playing time situation cleared up, Kucherov set the QMJHL on fire with the Huskies. Over the final 27 games of the season, he put up 26 goals and 53 points. He added another 24 points in just 14 playoff games.

Kucherov also represented Team Russia twice at the U20 World Junior Championships during his year in the QMJHL. With five goals and eight points in seven games, Team Russia captured a Bronze Medal, giving Kucherov three medals in three years of international play.

With his year in the QMJHL finished, Kucherov moved on to the AHL with the Syracuse Crunch for the 2013-14 season. Put on a line with fellow Russian Vladislav Namestnikov and J.T. Brown (who picked up the nickname “Brownov”), the line clicked immediately. In 17 games, Kucherov put up 13 goals and 24 points in 17 games. It was clear that, at least offensively, he was just too good for the AHL.

Then Steven Stamkos broke his leg in Boston on November 11th, 2013. The next day, J.T. Brown was called up to the NHL. Within two weeks, Brett Connolly was re-assigned to the AHL. Two days after Connolly was sent down, Ryan Malone went out of the line up with a bruised foot and Kucherov was called up to the NHL as well. In his first game, his first shift, his first shot, Kucherov would score his first career goal.

Kucherov remained up in Tampa Bay for the rest of the season. Most of his rookie season was spent playing on a third line made up of center Nate Tompson and Brown on the right wing. Kucherov only managed nine goals and nine assists for 18 points in 52 games.

Neither Thompson or Brown are great offensive contributors in the NHL with both having spent most of their careers as fourth line defensive forwards. Brown’s career high in points is 22 and for Thompson it’s 25 points. Kucherov did however help that line to drive possession and control the play. Kucherov had a 53.9% Corsi For Percentage and had a Goals For percentage of 59.4%. When Brown played away from Kucherov in 2013-14, he had only a 49.5% CF% and 42.9% GF%. For Thompson, those numbers were 48.6% and 51.3% respectively.

In his exit interview for that year, Kucherov was challenged to improve his defense. The coaching staff felt that he was too focused on the offensive end of the ice and they wanted to see him take care of both ends of the ice to become a more complete player. He went home to Russia and focused on exactly that.

The 2014-15 season came around and Kucherov was back in Tampa. The beginning of the season saw him shuffled down towards the bottom of the line-up. Through the first seven games of the year, Kucherov only managed two assists, both coming in a home game against the Montreal Canadiens.

Injuries again played a part in Kucherov’s ascension. With Brendan Morrow still recovering from a strained lower back, the Lightning saw Alex Killorn, J.T. Brown, Brett Connolly, and Ryan Callahan injured in quick succession. With call-ups and line shuffling going on during a early season western Canada road trip, Jon Cooper put Kucherov on the right wing with Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson, who had already shown a considerable amount of chemistry together. Throw in Kucherov and you had a line that was as potent as any in the NHL at even strength.

The Triplets were born and immediately broke out in a game at Winnipeg. Kucherov assisted on two even strength goals by Jonathan Drouin and Palat and added a power play assist on a Namestnikov goal in the middle. Kucherov scored his first goal of the season the next game in Minnesota.

The Lightning and the Triplets came home to Amalie Arena against the Arizona Coyotes and Kucherov exploded for three goals to record his first career hat trick, all at even strength.

The Triplets continued through the year terrorizing the NHL with their speed, creativity, sound defensive play, and staggering offensive production at even strength. Kucherov finished the year with 30 goals and 66 points with the Triplets as a unit combining for 75 goals and 200 points. Kucherov led the league in plus-minus with Johnson and Palat coming in a 3rd and 4th, marking just how dominating the Triplets were at even strength.

The pair would continue their dominance into the playoffs on their way to the 2015 Stanley Cup Finals. Kucherov scored 22 points in 26 playoff games to go with Johnson’s 23 points and Palat’s 16. Unfortunately, the line fell apart in the Finals against the Chicago Blackhawks when Johnson broke his wrist at the beginning of the series. With Johnson crippled, the line was no longer able to keep up their production contributing to the Lightning’s loss in six games to fall short of a Stanley Cup.

The 2015-16 saw the Lightning struggle with injuries throughout the year. Johnson and Palat both dealt with lower body injuries in addition to Johnson still recovering from the broken wrist. The Lightning also lost Stamkos just before the playoffs began to a blood clot issue that kept him out until game seven of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Kucherov would not be held back, and matched his production from the previous season with 30 goals and 66 points in 77 games to lead the Lightning in points. He added another 19 points in 17 playoff games.

The 2016-17 season was no less injury-ridden, and the Lightning lost Stamkos early in the season to a torn meniscus that needed surgery. Combined with struggles in goal, the Lightning got in a hole early and could not climb out of it despite a heroic effort from Kucherov.

Stepping up as the clear offensive leader with Stamkos out for the year, Kucherov set new career highs with 40 goals, 45 assists, and 85 points in 74 games. He finished the season tied for second in goals and tied for fifth in points.

Kucherov became the first Lightning player not named Steven Stamkos to score 40 goals since Vincent Lecavalier did it in 2007-08. He was also the first with 85 points since Stamkos had 97 in 2011-12. Since 2014-15, Kucherov has the 9th most goals and 10th most points in the NHL. He has firmly established himself as one of the elite forwards of the NHL and garnered Hart Trophy consideration for his performance in the 2016-17 season.

Over the past three seasons, we’ve been able to see night in and night out the creativity and vision of Kucherov. We’ve seen him snipe shots past the best goaltenders in the world. His passing, his skating, his defense. Everything in his game he does at a high level. And one thing we’ve learned is that he is a competitor and he is a winner. He does not like to lose and he fights hard to win. That competitive fire is part of what makes him so great.

With an improved power play and with the return of Steven Stamkos to the lineup, 2017-18 looks promising for Kucherov. There is every expectation for him to continue to produce at an elite level and give the Lightning two truly elite offensive forces up front. The future looks bright for Kucherov and for the Lightning because of his elite play.

This is Kucherov’s last year of eligibility for our Top 25 Under 25 series. Come next summer, he’ll be 25 years old. The big question is, who will take his place? Will it be Andrei Vasilevskiy with a Vezina caliber season? Or perhaps Brayden Point sneaks into the conversation with a stellar offensive season? Who will grow and show they are capable of more than once thought of and who will break out and finally show the kind of performance that their draft positions suggested?

This series has been a lot of fun to put together and we’re excited to see how all of the Tampa Bay Lightning’s young players grow over the next season and advance in our Top 25 Under 25.