Top 25 Under 25: #15 Nikita Kucherov

One of the most dynamic forwards in the QMJHL a season ago, Russian forward Nikita Kucherov is part of a retool/reload for the AHL Syracuse Crunch as he makes his North American professional debut this year.

Nikita Kucherov is a 1st round talent.

This is undeniable. A quick glance at his highlight real and you can see the tremendous skillset:

The Tampa Bay Lightning grabbed him in the 2nd round (58th overall) in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, with concerns over him coming over to North America the primary reason he fell out of the 1st round at all, coupled with some issues regarding work ethic, size, and the dreaded "Russian factor":

Here's how the panel ranked the 20-year old forward:

Kyle Alexander John Fontana Clark Brooks Clare Austin Patti McDonald Mike Gallimore
10 17 17 NR 10 11

Last season in the QMJHL in time split between the Quebec Remparts and the Rouyn-Norada Huskies, Kucherov skated in 33 regular season games, recording 29 goals and 34 assists (1.90 PPG) and was one of a tiny group of players (including Jonathan Drouin) who averaged near or above 2 points per game in the Q. His 34 assists in 33 games are especially impressive when you consider that one of the only players ahead of him in assists in QMJHL that also played fewer than 50 games was Nathan MacKinnon, drafted 1st overall this summer by the Colorado Avalanche. On a per-game basis, Kucherov set the league on fire, and continued his torrid scoring into the playoffs where he managed 9 goals and 15 assists in just 14 games (1.71 PPG) before being eliminated by Drouin's Halifax Mooseheads.

While Kucherov isn't a truly elite sniper or playmaker, that's more a testament to his all-around offensive game and ability to read and react to defensive coverage and breakdowns. He's just as comfortable skating around a defenseman and jamming the front of the net as he is gliding around behind the net and finding an open man in the slot. The staff at Bolt Prospects praised him this offseason, ranking him 6th among Lightning prospects:

Kucherov brings to the table world-class puck skills and well above average hockey sense and vision. He's also an excellent skater, although perhaps not with an elite top gear, and has a sniper's touch in and around the net.

Whether Steve Yzerman had some inkling that Kucherov intended to come over to North America or not, the selection is turning out to be a great one considering where he was chosen by the Bolts (bottom of the second round). Yzerman has had a knack for finding players that are dropping for a specific reason -- in Kucherov's case, concern about his desire to play in North America -- and then either being very lucky or very prescient when that drawback is revealed to be meaningless later.

In his first Tampa Bay Lightning training camp, Kucherov was very impressive, making it all the way to the final round of cuts before being assigned to the AHL Syracuse Crunch, where he will reportedly start the season on a line with former 1st round picks Vlad Namestnikov and Brett Connolly and what has been dubbed the "Lethal Weapon Line".

The Lightning will look for Kucherov to seize a top-scoring role with the Crunch this season while fine-tuning his game in all three zones and hopefully putting on some size, as he is still only listed at 5'11 and 171 pounds, which is a little small for the NHL. How he handles bigger, stronger veteran pros in the AHL and how he adjusts his offensive game to the faster speed of the pro game as compared to major juniors will be the keys to his continued development this season.