Passing Fancy: How Lightning’s Nikita Kucherov became a star

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The lesson Nikita Kucherov learned from childhood coach Gennady Kurdin is on display every time he laces up his skates and steps on to the ice.

Kurdin taught Kucherov the very common Russian hockey philosophy that the sport is about sacrificing for your partner. Each day at practice, Kucherov studies how his Tampa Bay Lightning teammates like to shoot, stores that knowledge and spits it out in games in the form of tape-to-tape passes.

”I like to find the open guys and give him a pass that he would be comfortable with, shoot it and score it,” Kucherov said. ”It just gives me more joy to just give the great pass and land it perfectly on his stick or in his wheelhouse so he can just score a goal.”

This should be a joyful season for Kucherov, who leads the NHL with 86 assists and 125 points and is the best player on by far the best team. But the intensely self-critical winger who should coast to a Hart Trophy as league MVP won’t be satisfied until he wins the Stanley Cup, and it’s that motivation that keeps him looking to create as many goals for his teammates as he can.

”Season’s been, it’s OK,” Kucherov said. ”My job is just go out there and play. It’s not my job to just talk about it. I don’t look back how many games we won. The more important games is ahead of us.”

The Lightning are Cup favorites, and there’s no player more important to his team this season than Kucherov. According to Hockey Reference analytics on goals created and shares of standings points, Kucherov leads the league in both categories – just ahead of Edmonton’s Connor McDavid, who’s widely considered the best player in the world.

And this isn’t out of the blue after Kucherov put up 85 points in 2016-17 and 100 points last season. Agent Dan Milstein chalks up this growth to experience and Kucherov’s willingness to look around the NHL for ways to improve.

”He’s a student of the game, so he’s constantly watching others, learning from others,” Milstein said. ”He’s very much in the know of what’s happening around the league and what’s happening around the hockey world. He works. Every free moment he has he spends improving his own skills.”

Current and former teammates respect Kucherov even more because they see that work up close before and after practice.

”Sometimes if a guy puts up 100 points the year before, maybe he might sit back on it,” said Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Slater Koekkoek, who played parts of five seasons with Kucherov. ”But Kuch is always like the first on the ice, last one off. He’s always working on it.”

The work that went into making Kucherov the NHL’s leading scorer also made him attractive to Adidas, which signed him last month to a multiyear marketing contract. After Kucherov signed a $76 million, eight-year extension last summer, it’s impossible to say he’s underappreciated for his contributions, but the Adidas deal pushes him into another level of stardom – even if reluctantly.

”He’s a creator in all sense of the word,” Adidas senior director Dan Near said. ”He’s somebody that does the unexpected, that has his own personality, albeit humble. That’s not a problem, right? Being modest and humble are an amazing character trait of hockey players. But his game on ice is filled with this confidence and swagger that I think is remarkable, actually, when you look at it for a guy his age who has had to adapt to American culture.”

Kucherov is only 25, but he left his home country to adapt to North American hockey at the junior level in 2012 and chooses to spend most of the offseason in Florida. He has come back each season with a new tool in his toolbox of skills, from a better one-timer to even more precise passing.

Growing up, Kucherov wasn’t a prodigy and has spent much of his time proving doubters wrong. A second-round pick of the Lightning in 2011, Kucherov is conscious of the fact he has had to earn everything and build his game block by block.

His mentality remains the same.

”Nothing came out as a kid like this,” Kucherov said. ”When I was a kid, I was always playing for my teammates and I liked to play give-and-gos because it’s a team sport. You can’t be selfish in here, and you have to use your teammates. It’s a tough league here to do it by yourself.”

Kucherov certainly doesn’t do it himself; he plays with 90-plus-point producers Steven Stamkos and Brayden Point on the league’s highest-scoring team. But this season he has emerged as otherworldly in his play and his numbers, and he deserves some credit for teammates’ statistical improvements.

”He’s just an elite player,” said Minnesota Wild forward J.T. Brown, who played four and a half seasons with Kucherov. ”His vision is there. He’s always looking. Sometimes you think it almost gets overlooked because he is such a dynamic scorer and he can shoot from anywhere and score, but he’s just as good at making players around him better and setting them up and putting them in good positions.”

Kucherov’s unselfish play sometimes leads coach Jon Cooper to want him to shoot more, even if it’s against his instincts. Given how good his shot is, teammates would be fine with Kucherov firing away, but they also know how much better the Lightning are because he’s pass-first by nature.

”He can find guys and put the puck on guys’ tape through (opponents) where there’s not a lot of guys that can do that,” Tampa Bay defenseman Ryan McDonagh said. ”He understands that’s a strength of his game, and he tries to give ourselves as many opportunities to create scoring chances as he can.”

Teammate Braydon Coburn raves about Kucherov’s vision. Adam Erne talks about Kucherov’s ability to make plays out of any situation. And while Near expects Kucherov to one day take the torch from Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin as the best Russian player in the league, those close to him never hear him talk about the many goals or assists he’s piling up.

”On a night when he scores but the team loses, it’s not a good night,” Milstein said. ”Instead of putting up lots of points for yourself, this is about winning the games and the ultimate goal is winning the Stanley Cup. This is the only thing that’s at stake in his professional career.”

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Colorado Avalanche: This season’s biggest surprises and disappointments

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With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the surprises and disappointments for the Colorado Avalanche.

Pavel Francouz the surprising star in net

If you were to look at the Avalanche roster at the start of the season and had to pick out an area of concern, goaltending might have been the easy choice.

Philipp Grubauer is a solid starter, but is he a championship-caliber goalie? After him, their top backup was the relatively unproven Francouz who entered the season with just two appearances in the NHL and only one season of professional hockey in North American. Given his age (29) and lack of an NHL resume, there had to be at least a little bit of a question mark regarding their goaltending depth.

Francouz has, instead, turned out to be one of the single biggest surprises on this year’s roster.

In 34 appearances he owns a 21-7-4 record with a .923 save percentage and was outstanding as the starter when Grubauer was sidelined due to injury. His overall play has been so good that the Avalanche already signed him to a two-year contract extension. He and Grubauer have turned out to be an outstanding duo and the underrated star of this year’s team.

Injuries have been a major disappointment

When it comes to performance it is really difficult to find a disappointment on this year’s team. The stars have been great, the scoring depth was addressed in a meaningful way over the summer with some great additions, the goaltending has been better than expected, and the young defensemen have excelled and are already blossoming into stars.

Instead of anything relating to performance, the biggest disappointment this season has been the bad injury luck.

Obviously that is not anyone’s fault, but it has kept us from really getting a sense of just how good this team can be when it is at full strength.

The injury list this season includes…

  • Andre Burakovsky for 12 games
  • Cale Makar for 13 games
  • Mikko Rantanen for 28 games
  • Gabriel Landeskog for 16 games
  • Nazem Kadri for 19 games
  • Erik Johnson for 11 games
  • Matt Calvert for 20 games
  • Grubauer did not start a game since the middle of February

That is not only a lot of games, it is a lot of games for significant players.

Even with all of that the Avalanche have still been one of the league’s best teams and certainly builds some excitement for what their ceiling is when everyone is in the lineup.

Tyson Jost has not really taken a big step forward

If you did want to reach for a performance related disappointment Jost might be the player to look at. It is tough to say that because on one hand he is still only 21 years old and has a ton of talent. So the potential is absolutely there. On the other hand, he has also already played 200 NHL games and has not really shown significant improvement. After that many games it might be time to start wondering if this is the player that he is — a 10-goal, 20-point depth forward. Not saying he can not be more than that, and players do develop at different paces, but we are no longer talking about a small sampling of games here.

He was mentioned in trade rumors leading up to the deadline and it definitely seems reasonable to conclude that he could be moved at some point in the future.

Ryan Graves has been a great complement for Makar

The Avalanche have the potential for an outstanding long-term defense with Makar (the current Calder Trophy front-runner as the league’s Rookie of the Year), Samuel Girard, and 2019 No. 4 overall pick Bowen Byram. That trio, their talent, upside, and contract situations help make them one of the most important parts of the team’s core moving forward and will be the foundation of a potential championship team in the very near future.

There is another player that has emerged as part of that defense this season, and that is the 24-year-old Graves.

He has spent a significant portion of his season playing alongside Makar to help form an outstanding pair.

In close to 500 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey this season the Avalanche have completely dominated the shot attempt and scoring-chance metrics and have outscored teams by a 31-17 margin with them on the ice. While it is easy to conclude that a lot of that is due to Makar carrying the duo, Graves has also excelled when playing next to Ian Cole.

Basically, no matter who he plays next to, it works.

For the season, Graves has nine goals and 26 total points and is a league-leading plus-40 while playing close to 19 minutes per game.

He may not be the impact player or star that Makar is, but his play has been an outstanding development this season.

More:
• Looking at the 2019-20 Colorado Avalanche

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

NHL Power Rankings: Best 2019-20 free agent signings

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In this week’s edition of the NHL Power Rankings we shift our focus back to the summer of 2019 and the free agent signings that have ended up working out the best so far.

Free agency is always a risky proposition for teams because it forces them into a bidding war for players that have most likely played their best hockey for somebody else. Most long-term contracts signed during the free agency signing period have a tendency to end in trades or buyouts. Not even one full season in and there are already a handful of contracts that are off to slow starts (Sergei Bobrovsky in Florida, Matt Duchene in Nashville, Joe Pavelski in Dallas).

Some of them, however, have worked out as planned. Those are the contracts we are focussing on here today.

When it comes to identifying the “best” contracts at this point we are trying to take into account overall performance and the value of the contract. Sometimes it is a long-term deal that looks good, other times it is a short-term “prove it” deal where everyone ended up getting exactly what they wanted.

Which free agents make the cut?

To the rankings!

1. Artemi Panarin, New York Rangers. While most long-term free agent contracts end up failing to meet expectations, this is one that looks like it is going to work. Panarin is having one of the best individual seasons in the history of the Rangers’ franchise and is playing at an MVP level. Maybe he will not play at a superstar level for the entire seven-year term of the contract, but there is little reason to believe he will not be an impact player in New York for several years. One of the league’s best offensive players.

2. Kevin Shattenkirk, Tampa Bay Lightning. This was one of those “prove it” contracts. After having his previous deal with the Rangers bought out, Shattenkirk found himself back on the open market this past summer and landed in Tampa Bay on a one-year, $1.75 million contract. It has worked out tremendously for the Lightning. Shattenkirk has bounced back across the board with an improved offensive performance and dominant possession numbers. He may not be a No. 1 defender, but as a No. 2 or 3 on a contender he can still make an impact.

3. Robin Lehner, Chicago Blackhawks (traded to Vegas). After being a finalist for the Vezina Trophy a year ago, the Islanders allowed Lehner to walk and become an unrestricted free agent. He ended up getting a one-year, $5 million contract with the Blackhawks and was one of the biggest reasons they were able to at least somewhat stay in playoff contention instead of dropping down toward the bottom of the league. They ended up trading him to Vegas at the trade deadline, and even though that return was underwhelming it was still a strong signing.

4. Joonas Donskoi, Colorado Avalanche. The Avalanche entered the offseason armed with one of the league’s best young cores and the most salary cap space to play with. While they did not get the big ticket free agents, they did make some really smart moves. Donskoi’s four-year deal is right at the top of that list. He has been an outstanding depth addition and provided some much-needed secondary scoring.

5. Gustav Nyquist, Columbus Blue Jackets. He is not a superstar by any means, but Nyquist has given the Blue Jackets exactly what they thought he would: 15-20 goals, a 50-point pace, and all around solid top-six play. He has also been one of the few Blue Jackets players that has not missed significant time to injury this season. His $5.5 million salary cap hit over the next three seasons (after this one) is a more than fair price tag for what he provides.

6. Semyon Varlamov, New York Islanders. All things being equal he is probably a downgrade from what they lost in Lehner, but he has stayed healthy and been very good for the Islanders. The four-year contract seemed like a risk (and still is) but he has been productive so far.

7. Valeri Nichushkin, Colorado Avalanche. Nichushkin’s 2018-19 season was the dullest individual season in NHL history. I do not mean that as a knock. It legitimately was given that he played 57 games and did not score a single goal or record a single penalty minute (the first time any player ever did that). That resulted in him signing a one-year, $850,000 contract with Colorado. In 65 games he already has 13 goals, 27 total points, and has been another outstanding depth addition.

8. Tyler Ennis, Ottawa Senators (traded to Edmonton). Another one-year bargain. Ennis was one of the few bright spots in Ottawa this season before he was flipped to the Oilers at the trade deadline. Before this season his production had fallen off a cliff as he bounced from Buffalo, to Minnesota, to Toronto, and then to Ottawa. This was a nice bounce-back year for him.

9. Noel Acciari, Florida Panthers. Before this season Acciari scored 18 goals in 180 career games. In his first 66 games with the Panthers he has already scored 20 goals. He makes just a little more than $1 million per season. Is this goal scoring output a short-term fluke? Maybe. Does that make me overrate him right now? Probably. But finding a 20-goal scorer for just over a million against the cap is a steal no matter how you look at it.

10. Tyler Myers, Vancouver Canucks. I hated this contract at the time and thought it signaled more bumbling from a directionless Vancouver front office that was just trying to sneak into the playoffs to save face. Maybe that’s what it still is. But once I get beyond my initial criticism I have to admit that Myers has been a pretty solid addition to the Canucks’ defense. Maybe it won’t look that way in two or three years, but for now he has helped.

Honorable mentions

  • Brandon Tanev, Pittsburgh Penguins. Like Myers, I hated the length of this deal at the time, but he has been a great addition to their bottom-six and helped defensively.
  • Brett Connolly, Florida Panthers. The Bobrovsky contract might not work, but the additions of Acciari and Connolly were solid moves to add offense.
  • Mats Zuccarello, Minnesota Wild. My biggest complaint here is Zuccarello added another player on the wrong side of 30 to a team that already has a lot of them making big money. Overall, though, he has been good.
  • Jason Spezza, Toronto Maple Leafs. By no means is he a top player anymore, but as a veteran third-or fourth-line center he is great for that salary cap hit.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Petry family opens restaurant tabs for Montreal hospital workers

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Montreal Canadiens defenseman Jeff Petry and his wife Julie are putting smiles on the faces of hospital workers in the Montreal area. Over the weekend, the family decided to open up $2,500 tabs at a pair of restaurants in the city.

Starting yesterday, front-line hospital workers were able to place their orders at either restaurant and have a meal on the Petry family tab.

“Julie and I are constantly thinking of all those on the front lines helping take care of others during this unthinkable time all over the world, but especially back in Montreal,” the veteran defenseman said in an Instagram post. “They have taken such good care of us and our kids over the years we can’t help but have those doctors, nurses and staff members on our hearts during this unfathomable time! The around the clock hours they are working to help fight this crazy virus is nothing short of heroic. I’m sure they would say “I’m just doing my job”, but to us it’s more than that. These selfless individuals are not only putting themselves at risk, but are also dealing with the same stresses that come along with these circumstances when they go home. We want them to know we are thinking of them & supporting them.

“The Petrys just want to say thank you! But even “thank you” doesn’t seem like enough. A small way we can show our support is by offering a meal from a couple of our favorite local restaurants.”

On Sunday, Petry had a follow-up post thanking those who went out and picked up their meals.

That’s a really classy move by Jeff and Julie.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Looking at the 2019-20 Colorado Avalanche

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With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to take a look at where each NHL team stands at this moment with a series of posts examining their season. Have they met expectations? Exceeded expectations? Who has been the surprise? All of that and more. Today we look at the Colorado Avalanche.

Colorado Avalanche

Record: 42-20-8 (70 games), second in the Central Division
Leading Scorer: Nathan MacKinnon 93 points (35 goals and 58 assists)

In-season Roster Moves:

• Acquired Michael Hutchinson from the Toronto Maple Leafs for Calle Rosen.
• Traded a 2021 fourth-round draft pick to the Ottawa Senators for Vladislav Namestnikov.

Season Overview: 

Last season, the Avs were a young team that did some damage in the playoffs when they upset the number one seed, the Calgary Flames, in the opening round of the postseason.This year, there were higher expectations for them.

Despite having to deal with a number of different key injuries, the Avalanche have found a way to stay in the mix for the Central Division crown. That’s impressive when you consider the fact that Gabriel Landeskog missed more than month with a lower-body injury. Also, Mikko Rantanen missed two long stretches (he was on injured reserve at the time of the pause). Nazem Kadri missed 19 games of his own and the list goes on and on.

Of course, most of the heavy lifting offensively was done by MacKinnon, who had accumulated 93 points in just 69 games. His impressive combination of skill and speed are tough to beat. There’s no doubt that he’s in the mix for the Hart Trophy this year.

The emergence of rookie defender Cale Makar has also helped take the Avs to another level this year. The 21-year-old is averaging a shade over 21 minutes of ice time per game and he’s picked up 12 goals and 50 points in 57 contests. Rookie of the year? He was definitely one of the two main contenders for the award.

General manager Joe Sakic also found a way to surround his stars with some solid depth players. Andre Burakovsky, Joonas Donskoi, Valeri Nichushkin, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare have all been nice fits on their new team. The Kadri acquisition also helped solidify things down the middle.

The biggest question mark heading into the season was goaltending. But the duo of Philipp Grubauer and Pavel Francouz have held up.

Grubauer, who was expected to be the starter heading into the year, has missed significant time due to injury. In his absence, Francouz has done a really good job, as he owns a 21-7-4 record with a 2.41 goals-against-average and a .923 save percentage.

Whether we see a conclusion to the 2019-20 season or not is almost irrelevant for the Avs. They’re not one of those teams that will fade next season. This is a group with a young nucleus that should compete for quite a while.

Highlight of the Season: 

There were a lot of positive moments for the Avs, but Jan. 2, 2020 has to be right up there with the best of them.

Not only did the Avs beat the defending champion St. Louis Blues, they made a statement. Colorado built up a 3-0 lead, but the score was 3-2 heading into the third frame. That’s when they turned on the afterburners and left the Blues in the dust.

They scored three more times in the third frame and beat St. Louis, 7-3. MacKinnon had four points.

They went on to beat the Blues again less than a month later.

More:
Colorado Avalanche biggest surprises and disappointments so far this season

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.