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

Will coaching change be enough to give Ducks’ goalies some help?

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Since becoming the Anaheim Ducks’ starter, John Gibson has become one of the best goalies in the NHL.

For the first part of the 2018-19 season he was almost single-handedly carrying the team and helping to keep it at least somewhat competitive. He was not only in the Vezina Trophy discussion, but as long as the Ducks were winning he was a legitimate MVP contender. But for as good as Gibson performed, the entire thing was a house of cards that was always on the verge of an ugly collapse.

The Ducks couldn’t score, they couldn’t defend, they forced Gibson to take on a ridiculous workload in terms of shots and scoring chances against.

Eventually, everything fell apart.

Once Gibson started to wear down and could no longer steal games on a nightly basis, the team turned into one of the worst in the league despite having a top-10 goaltending duo. That is a shocking accomplishment because teams that get the level of goaltending the Ducks received from the Gibson-Ryan Miller duo usually make the playoffs.

How bad was it for the Ducks? They were one of only three teams in the top-15 in save percentage this past season that did not make the playoffs.

The only other teams in the top-15 that missed were the Montreal Canadiens, who were just two points back in a far better and more competitive Eastern Conference, and the Arizona Coyotes who were four points back in the Western Conference and the first team on the outside looking in.

The Ducks not only missed, they were 10 points short with FIVE teams between them and a playoff spot. Again, almost impossibly bad.

It is a testament to just how bad the rest of the team performed in front of the goalies, and it continued a disturbing trend from the 2018 playoffs when the Ducks looked completely overmatched against the San Jose Sharks in a four-game sweep. It was clear the team was badly flawed and was falling behind in a faster, more skilled NHL.

The problem for the Ducks right now is that so far this offseason the team has remained mostly the same.

They bought out the remainder of Corey Perry‘s contract, will be without Ryan Kesler, and have really not done anything else to change a roster that has not been anywhere near good enough the past two seasons.

That means it is going to be another sink-or-swim season for the Ducks based on how far the goaltending duo of Gibson and Miller can carry them.

It is a tough situation because the Ducks have made an absolutely massive commitment to Gibson as he enters the first year of an eight-year, $51.2 million contract. T

hat is a huge investment in a goalie, and for the time being, the Ducks have not really done anything to support him. Even if you have the best goalie in the league — or just one of the best — it is nearly impossible to win based only on that. Great goalies can help, they can mask a lot of flaws, and they can even carry a mediocre or bad team to the playoffs if they have a historically great season (think Carey Price during the 2014-15 season). But that still puts a ton of pressure on the goalie, and it is nearly impossible to ride that all the way to a championship.

There is, however, one small cause for optimism.

A lot of the Ducks’ problems defensively last season seemed to be based around their system and structure in the early part of the season under then-coach Randy Carlyle.

Under Carlyle the Ducks were one of the worst teams in the league when it came to suppressing shot attempts, shots on goal, and scoring chances during 5-on-5 play.

They were 29th or worse when it came to shots on goal against, scoring chances, and high-danger scoring chances, and 26th in total shot attempts against. This is something that always happened with Carlyle coached teams and they would always go as far as their goaltending could take them. In recent years, Gibson masked a lot of those flaws by playing at an elite level and helped get the Ducks in the playoffs. He was able to do it for half of a season this year before finally playing like a mortal instead of a goaltending deity.

But after Carlyle was replaced by general manager Bob Murray, the Ducks showed some massive improvement defensively, shaving multiple shots, shot attempts, and scoring chances per 60 minutes off of their totals.

They went from 26th to seventh in shots on goal against, from 29th to 19th in shot attempts, from 30th to 17th in scoring chances against, and from 29th to 17th in high-danger scoring chances against.

Still not great, but definitely better. Much better. So much better that even though Gibson’s overall performance regressed, the Ducks still managed to win games and collect points at a significantly better rate than they did earlier in the season. They were 14-11-1 from Feb. 10 until the end of the season under Murray.

That is a 91.3 point pace over 82 games. That would have been a playoff point total in the Western Conference this past season.

Under Carlyle, it was a 74.6 point pace. That would have been one of the four worst records in the league.

Coaching changes are very rarely a cure-all. It is still a talent-driven league, and if you do not have talent you are probably not going to win very much. But there are always exceptions and outliers, and sometimes a coaching change is a necessity and can help dramatically improve a team.

New Ducks coach Dallas Eakins has an incredibly short NHL head coaching resume so we don’t have much to go by when it comes to what he will do What we do have to go by came in Edmonton where it has become abundantly clear over the past 15 years that the problems go far beyond the head coach (because they have all failed there). The Ducks are still short on talent at forward and defense, but it should still be able to perform better than it did a year ago. And with a goalie as dominant as Gibson can be (with a great backup behind him) there is no excuse for them to be as far out of the playoff picture as they were.

The Ducks don’t need to be the 1995 Devils defensively to compete.

They just need to not be the worst shot suppression team in the league.

If Eakins can figure out a way to build on the momentum the Ducks showed over the final two months of the 2018-19 season, they might actually have a fighting chance.

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.

Calgary Flames set with arena plans to replace Saddledome

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CALGARY, Alberta (AP) — The Calgary Flames have a tentative agreement for a new arena to replace the Saddledome.

The city, NHL team and the Calgary Stampede have agreed in principle to terms. The Stampede, a rodeo exhibition, owns the land.

The deal was to be presented to the City Council on Monday and then put to a vote. Calgary citizens would then have a week to voice their opinion before a council vote next week to ratify the deal.

The Saddledome is almost 36 years old. The cost of the event center is $550 million to $600 million. It is to have a seating capacity of about 20,000 for sports and would be the heart of a larger revitalized commercial and residential district.

Penguins sign Zach Aston-Reese to 2-year deal

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PITTSBURGH (AP) — The Pittsburgh Penguins and forward Zach Aston-Reese avoided arbitration on Monday, agreeing to a two-year deal that runs through the 2020-21 season.

The deal is worth $1 million annually. The two sides came together minutes before heading to arbitration.

”We were actually setting up for the meeting and kind of right before it started, right at nine o’clock, it got done,” Aston-Reese said. ”Right on time.”

Aston-Reese, 24, posted career highs in goals (eight) and assists (nine) despite being limited to 43 games because of a hand injury. Aston-Reese – who skated alongside Sidney Crosby on the top line but also put in work with the fourth line – gives the Penguins more options as they try to bounce back from a first-round playoff sweep at the hands of the New York Islanders.

”Zach is a responsible player who plays a solid two-way game,” general manager Jim Rutherford said. ”He has a heavy style of play that is especially effective on the forecheck and penalty kill.”

Aston-Reese admitted he was relieved to get a new contract ironed out before going through arbitration.

”It’s a little bit awkward and I was just really happy to get the deal done before that meeting began,” he said. ”You hear stories of things like that and it’s no coincidence that only what, 5% actually go through with the meeting. I was happy to avoid that.”

How Phil Kessel can transform Coyotes’ offense

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The Arizona Coyotes made a significant splash this offseason when they acquired Phil Kessel from the Pittsburgh Penguins, adding a much-needed impact player to the top of their lineup. Getting him was a perfect confluence of events that involved the Penguins feeling desperate to shake up their roster, Kessel having almost full control over where he ended up going, and the Coyotes having a head coach (Rick Tocchet) the Kessel liked playing for in the past and wanted to play for again.

Despite an impossibly bad run of injury luck the Coyotes made a valiant push for a playoff spot only to fall just short, in large part because they did not have enough offense.

They finished the season 28th in goals scored, 20th in shots on goal, and 26th on the power play. None of that is promising.

One player alone can not fix all of that — especially a player that will be turning 32 at the start of the season — but adding a player like Kessel certainly helps.

A lot.

Acquiring Kessel is so significant because the Coyotes have simply not had a player like him in more than a decade. Maybe even longer.

A *bad* year for Kessel offensively is probably 25 goals and 60 points, while he is also still capable of being an 80-90 point player. Even the middle ground between those two is bonafide first-line production.

To put all of that that into perspective, just consider that since the start of the 2008-09 season the Coyotes have had only two players top the 70-point mark in a single season, and none since Ray Whitney did it during the 2011-12 season. No one has topped 80 points during that stretch.

Over that same stretch they have had only five 60-point performances (and only Clayton Keller has done it since 2011-12), only two 30-goal seasons (none since, again, 2011-12) and only three 25-goal seasons.

Twenty-five goals and 60 points are not huge numbers. Those are great second line numbers in today’s NHL and pretty good first line numbers. But even those have been almost unheard of in Arizona for the past decade. They just simply have not had anyone that is even close to being an impact forward.

Should Kessel be expected to be the same 80-or 90-point player that he has been the past two seasons? Probably not, not only because he will not have the luxury of Hall of Fame centers next to him, but also because he is also going to be another year older. There is a definite recipe for regression there, especially at even-strength. But he is still gifted enough of a player (and passer and playmaker, perhaps his most underappreciated skill) that he will still be one of the best and most productive offensive players to wear a Coyotes uniform in years.

But the area he should make the biggest impact is on Arizona’s dreadful power play.

The Coyotes have been one of the worst teams on the man-advantage for five years now, mostly because they just have not had anyone at forward that could really take over and run things.

The power play is where Kessel does a significant part of his damage.

Over the past three seasons Kessel is sixth in power play assists per 60 minutes (5.49), 11th in primary assists per 60 minutes (2.91), and third in total points per 60 minutes (7.47).

It is easy to write that off in recent years to playing alongside the likes of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, Kessel was often the one that unit ran through and it was far less dangerous when he was not on the ice. His passing, vision, and playmaking made him an elite weapon and one of the most productive players in the league on the man-advantage.

The Coyotes have had no one that even comes close to that level of performance over the past few years.

Kessel definitely has his flaws, and his defensive shortcomings are very real, but he remains an impact winger and a player that can still completely help transform a power play unit. He alone may not make them the best unit in the league, or even one of the best, but he is going to make them better. Very likely a lot better.

The Coyotes have been assembling a promising roster that is pretty good defensively and definitely has the potential to grow into a good team in the not too distant future. The biggest thing they have been lacking in this rebuild is a forward that can change a game and be a difference-maker offensively. Ideally, that player would be someone younger and still closer to the prime of their career and would better match up with some of their core players, but those players are nearly impossible to acquire without a lot of luck or a top-pick in the right draft year.

Kessel may not be perfect, but can definitely still help give them a lot of the elements they have been lacking offensively and help bring some firepower to an offense that has been one of the dullest and least dangerous in the league.

Combined with the addition of Carl Soderberg and, hopefully, some better injury luck and that should give the Coyotes a fighting chance to make up that ground in the Western Conference playoff race.

(Data in this post via Natural Stat Trick and Hockey Reference)

Related: Coyotes acquire Phil Kessel from Pittsburgh Penguins for Alex Galchenyuk

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.