Kucherov shines in Drouin’s absence

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In the absence of top prospect Jonathan Drouin, Nikita Kucherov has been a pleasant surprise for the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Drouin has missed most of camp as a result of a fractured right thumb. With Drouin out, Kucherov has been given a bigger role during the preseason.

The 21-year-old has made the most of his opportunity scoring six goals and seven points in six games.

Originally a second round pick of the Lightning in 2011, Kucherov said he lacked consistency while appearing in 52 games with Tampa Bay last season.

“I had some good games, some bad games, and got scratched a couple times,” Kucherov told the Tampa Bay Times. “It was my first year; I was young and didn’t know. It was just a good experience.”

The forward scored nine goals and 18 points during his rookie campaign, but also found himself a healthy scratch during parts of last season. Kucherov also spent time with the Syracuse Crunch of the American Hockey League scoring 13 goals and 24 points in 17 games.

Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper admitted a noticeable difference in Kucherov’s game during the preseason.

“He’s been really good for us,” Cooper said. “He’s stepped up his offensive side, but I really, truly believe he’s so much more responsible defensively, it’s helped his offensive game. He needs to keep that up and things should work out for him.”

The 5-foot-11 Russian native has benefited from having countryman Vladislav Namestnikov around both on and off the ice.

“He’s been awesome,” Namestnikov said. “I just have to hit him and he puts it in the net.”

Off the ice, Namestnikov has helped Kucherov with his English.

“I think I got better at everything,” Kucherov said. “I’ve got older, and I know the guys here, and I have so much confidence in the room and on the ice.”

With Drouin likely starting the season on injured reserve, the Lightning  hope Kucherov can continue his hot play from the preseason into the regular season.

Tampa Bay opens the regular season Thursday when the Florida Panthers visit.