Nikita Kucherov And The Tampa Bay Lightning Are Poised At The Edge of Redemption

The Tampa Bay Lightning are one of the the most unlikely franchise success stories in sports. They play in a region of the country where professional sports teams have notorious difficulty at gaining a following, and they play hockey in sunny, warm Florida, giving themselves an added degree of difficulty. And yet, they have against the odds managed to build a strong, dedicated fanbase over the past decade, as the team has garnered every achievement and accolade except one — the Stanley Cup title.

Now, this Lightning team was partly assembled through the most conventional means available to a franchise- picking at the top of the draft. Team captain Steven Stamkos was picked at no.1 overall in the 2008 NHL Draft, and no.1 defenseman Victor Hedman was picked second overall in 2009. But in the 2020 postseason, Stamkos has not featured at all, as the captain and longtime leading goal-scorer has been sidelined with an unspecified lower body injury since before the COVID-19 mandated shutdown of play that took place in March.

In the abscence of Stamkos, the Lightning’s offense has been carried by two players who did not have nearly the hype and pedigree that he did coming into the league, though in retrospect perhaps they should have. As a teenager, right winger Nikita Kucherov was an excellent performer for his Russian junior league team Krasnaya Armia, putting up over a point per game. However, due to the greater risk associated with Russian prospects in the NHL (their arrival in North America often takes several years after the draft), he became available to the Lightning with the fifty-eigth overall pick in the 2011 draft. However, the risk taken on him at the time has paid off in spades.

As is true to form with many Russians, the Lightning had to wait on Kucherov to make his NHL debut, which did not come until the 2013–14 season. But to say he has proved worth the wait has been an enormous understatement. In his first season, he needed to learn to adjust to the level of the North American game, putting up only 18 points in 52 games. But the very next year he came into his own, putting up 65 points and helping the Lightning reach the Stanley Cup final.

That performance was only the beginning for Kucherov- in 2016–17, he recorded a stellar 85 points in just 74 games (the full NHL season is 82 games). And in 2018–19, he recorded a whopping 128 points, leading the league in scoring while executing highlight reel plays seemingly every night. At season’s end, he was awarded the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player, as the Lightning would put up a historically dominant 62 wins in the regular season.

Unfortunately, not only would the Lightning disappoint in the postseason, but Kucherov himself was a central culprit in that playoff debacle. Facing the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round, Kucherov made an illegal hit on Blue Jacket player Marcus Nutivaara in the second game. Not only did the Blue Jackets lose, but Kucherov found himself suspended for the third game for this careless and dangerous action. This seemingly deflated the Lightning, who then went on to be swept out of the playoffs by Columbus in four straight games.

This shocking defeat seemed to have an effect on the Lightning players even into the start of the 2019–20 season, with Kucherov no exception, as he struggled early. In late December, coach Jon Cooper felt he needed to send a drastic message to his star player, benching him in the third period of a game, as if to demand he snap out of his funk and become the dominant player his coach, teammates and fans knew he could be.

If that was the message Kucherov’s coach meant to send, then it had the desired effect. Soon, Kucherov was back to his usual superstar self, with 85 regular season points at the time of the March shutdown. With the season resuming in August, he has picked up where he left off, as one of the Lightning’s leading scorers so far in the playoffs, as they stand poised to take on the New York Islanders in the Eastern Conference Finals. If they are to make it past New York and whoever emerges from the Western Conference, Kucherov will almost certainly play a pivotal role in the team’s success- or failure.

The story of the Lightning and Kucherov mirrors that of another NHL team headlined by a Russian superstar- the Washington Capitals and Alex Ovechkin. Headlined by Ovechkin’s otherworldly goal-scoring abilities, the Capitals dominated the regular season for the better part of a decade, but consistently came up short in the playoffs, even after winning the Presidents’ Trophy for the league’s best regular season record (which the Lightning did last year).

However, the 2017–18 season saw the Capitals, led by Ovechkin, overcome their playoff demons and capture the Stanley Cup. Along the way, they overcame Kucherov’s Lightning team in a hard-fought seven game Eastern Conference Finals. The Lightning now find themselves in the position where they could repeat what the Capitals accomplished. They redeemed themselves from their defeat last year by defeating the Columbus Blue Jackets in a rematch, now all that remains is the Stanley Cup.

Nikita Kucherov now finds himself in the same position as his countryman Ovechkin and his team did two years ago. He is a regular season superstar who has garnered a great deal of criticism for his playoff performance, sometimes warranted and at other times unfair. The 2020 playoffs represents an opportunity to see the Ovechkin playoff redemption story duplicated by yet another Russian hockey star. Kucherov has already established himself as one of the elite players of the NHL- the Stanley Cup is the last thing that remains for him to achieve in the sport before reaching the level of true superstardom.