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

WATCH LIVE: Predators vs. Blues on Hockey Day in America

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Sunday’s matchup between the St. Louis Blues and Nashville Predators. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

This game is the second of a back-to-back home-and-home between these clubs, with the Predators winning 4-3 on Saturday afternoon in St. Louis. Nashville led 2-0 after the first period and 3-1 in the second before the Blues came back to tie the game at 3-3. Mikael Granlund then scored the game- winner on the power play in the third period. Jake Allen started in goal for the Blues (23 saves on 27 shots).

The defending Stanley Cup champion Blues have hit their first major slump of the season, having lost four straight games and nine of their last 11 games (2-6-3). The Predators, on the other hand, have weathered a slow start to the season and are now very much in the playoff mix, just one point outside a Wild Card spot.

The Predators have won two straight games, beating the Islanders 5-0 on Thursday and the Blues 4-3 on Saturday. They have only won three straight games once this season with a four-game winning streak in October.

Despite leading Nashville to the playoffs in each of his first five seasons, the sluggish start to the 2019-20 season was enough for the Predators to move on from Peter Laviolette, their second-ever head coach, and bring in John Hynes, whose head coaching experience consisted of leading the Devils for four-plus seasons (2015-16 to 2019-20) before being fired on December third after New Jersey lost 17 of its first 26 games.

The Blues have been one of the league’s best home teams this season but have lost more than half of their road games (14-10-5). They have lost eight of their last nine road games, including each of the last three.

[COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6 P.M. ET ON NBCSN]

WHAT: St. Louis Blues at Nashville Predators
WHERE: Bridgestone Arena
WHEN: Sunday, Feb. 16, 6 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Blues-Predators stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

BLUES
Jaden SchwartzBrayden SchennTyler Bozak
Zach SanfordRyan O'ReillyDavid Perron
Alex SteenRobert ThomasJordan Kyrou
Mackenzie MacEachernIvan BarbashevSammy Blais

Carl GunnarssonAlex Pietrangelo
Colton ParaykoJustin Faulk
Vince DunnRobert Bortuzzo

Starting goalie: Jake Allen

PREDATORS
Mikael Granlund – Ryan JohansenViktor Arvidsson
Filip ForsbergMatt DucheneKyle Turris
Rocco GrimaldiNick BoninoCraig Smith
Calle JarnkrokColton SissonsAustin Watson

Roman JosiYannick Weber
Jarred TinordiMattias Ekholm
Dan HamhuisDante Fabbro

Starting goalie: Pekka Rinne

Host Liam McHugh and analysts Keith Jones, Anson Carter, and Brian Boucher will anchor pre-game, intermission, and post-game coverage throughout the day. Chris Cuthbert will call the action from Bridgestone Arena alongside Darren Pang.

Trade: Islanders land Devils captain Andy Greene

Islanders trade for Andy Greene Devils get pick, prospect
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The New Jersey Devils aren’t waiting until the trade deadline to start selling. The Islanders landed Devils captain Andy Greene in a trade on Sunday, and New Jersey may end up making more moves soon.

Islanders trade for Greene, Devils’ return highlighted by second-rounder

The Islanders treasure defense and grit under Barry Trotz. The Islanders got what they wanted, then, in a trade for Greene.

Chances are, Lou Lamoriello looks at Greene as a replacement for injured blueliner Adam Pelech.

The Devils? Well, they landed a pretty nice haul for a defenseman who wouldn’t make sense for their rebuild. That should soothe any discomfort that may come from sending Greene in a trade to the rival Islanders.

Islanders receive in trade: Greene, 37, on an expiring contract ($5M AAV); no word yet if there was salary retention

Devils get: 2021 Islanders second-round pick, prospect David Quenneville

Greene doesn’t blow you away offensively, by any means, with two goals and 11 points in 53 games. Greene also isn’t an analytics darling.

The Islanders march to the beat of their own drum, though, so this Hockey Viz heat map won’t phase them:

Greene Viz trade to Islanders

Greene fits the Islanders’ M.O. of being an experienced, defense-first (second, and third) player.

One interesting part of the gamble is that it’s a 2021 second-rounder, rather than the Islanders’ 2020. Will the Islanders be a better team in 2020-21, or could recent stumbles indicate a bumpier future? The Devils will be rooting for the Islanders slip like the Senators watching the Sharks this season.

Quenneville, 21, was a seventh-round pick (200th overall) in 2016.

TSN’s Darren Dreger reports that Blake Coleman isn’t suiting up for Sunday’s game, inspiring new rumblings.

The Devils shot down a report that Coleman was headed to the Avalanche, but that doesn’t mean a Coleman trade won’t happen in some later form. Stay tuned.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Black Girl Hockey Club bolsters fan inclusivity

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NBC Sports celebrates Hockey Day in America this Sunday with an NHL tripleheader on NBC and NBCSN, as well as a collection of stories and features which explore hockey’s impact and influence across the U.S.

At the beginning of the 2018 NHL season, Renee Hess founded the Black Girl Hockey Club to create a comfortable atmosphere for black women to watch hockey games together.

Hess became interested in hockey years ago after running into a crowd of excited Penguins fans while she was working in Pittsburgh. The first game left Hess hooked, but she noticed that there weren’t a lot of people like her in the stands.

Hess found a handful of other black female hockey fans on Twitter and they created a group: the Black Girl Hockey Club. The must-follow group uses this platform to discuss the sport and meet in-person at games across the country. It looks they’re currently experiencing what the Carolina Hurricanes have to offer:

The Black Girl Hockey Club boasts a membership exceeding 200 people. Their story just seems to be beginning, yet they already rank as one of the best stories from “Hockey Day in America.”

You can follow their events and donate to Black Girl Hockey Club here.

(Oh, and Hess must have been happy to see the Penguins win on Sunday, too.)

NBC Hockey Day in America remaining schedule

Bruins at Rangers – NBC – 3 p.m. ET (Watch live) – Mike Tirico will call the matchup at Madison Square Garden alongside Pierre McGuire and Mike Milbury.

Blues at Predators – NBCSN –  6 p.m. ET (Watch live) – Chris Cuthbert will call the action from Bridgestone Arena alongside Darren Pang.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Penguins roll through Red Wings, gain ground in Metro race

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On paper, this seemed like it would be an easy win. Hockey is one of the more unpredictable sports, though, so credit the Penguins with taking care of business against the Red Wings. The Penguins won 5-1 to kick off “Hockey Day in America” on Sunday, improving their odds of taking the Metro crown.

Detroit got off to a 1-0 lead, but it ended up being short-lived. The Penguins tied it up 1-1 when Sam Lafferty (or was it Patric Hornqvist?) scored less than three minutes after Valtteri Filppula made it 1-0.

Hornqvist played a big role in the Penguins growing a 2-1 lead to a 5-1 rout during the second period. From there, it was automatic for Pittsburgh.

It turns out Hornqvist didn’t quite get a hat trick as it originally appeared, but he still had a big game. Sidney Crosby scored one goal and one assist, while Matt Murray stopped 26 out of 27 shots.

The Penguins set the stage for a potentially interesting race for the Metro Division title. They’ve been gaining quite a bit on the Washington Capitals:

  1. Capitals: 79 points in 58 games played (37-16-5)
  2. Penguins: 78 points in 57 GP (36-15-6)

NBC and NBCSN Hockey Day in America schedule

Bruins at Rangers – NBC – 3 p.m. ET (Watch live) – Mike Tirico will call the matchup at Madison Square Garden alongside Pierre McGuire and Mike Milbury.

Blues at Predators – NBCSN –  6 p.m. ET (Watch live) – Chris Cuthbert will call the action from Bridgestone Arena alongside Darren Pang.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.