Ryan McDonagh

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Trouba trade highlights Rangers’ brilliant rebuild

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While it’s important to understand the context for why the Jets made the trade, the bottom line is that the Jacob Trouba trade is a slam dunk for the New York Rangers. Scratch that, we need a more pronounced sports metaphor: it was a grand slam.

It also says a lot about the Rangers’ rebuild process that, while the Trouba trade might be management’s best move yet, there are plenty of other fantastic moves to choose from.

Brassard bonanza

If you want a starting point that includes an exclamation point, begin with the monstrously one-sided Mika ZibanejadDerick Brassard trade. The trade seems to get more lopsided with every Zibanejad goal, and after every time Brassard sadly packs his bag after being traded once again. It’s almost cruel that the Rangers received a second-rounder while Ottawa only nabbed a seventh-rounder as part of that deal.

(Really, that trade isn’t that far off from the Rangers’ buddies in New Jersey stealing Taylor Hall for Adam Larsson.)

If you start with the Zibanejad heist and end with trading for Trouba plus the near-certain selection of high-end prospect Kaapo Kakko, you’d see that the Rangers are writing the blueprint for how to run an NHL rebuild. Sure, there’s been luck here and there – particularly in getting 2019’s second pick – but the Rangers have done more to make their own luck than any other rebuilding team.

Turning Pionk and the 20th pick into Trouba

Neal Pionk‘s presence in the Trouba trade stands as one of the testaments to the Rangers’ full rebuild approach.

Where the occasionally rebuild-resistant Red Wings gave opportunities to aging veterans like Mike Green and Thomas Vanek (Vanek had a no-trade clause this past season!), the Rangers pulled a perfect “pump-and-dump” with Pionk. There’s some evidence that Pionk was a fairly substantial part of the package for the Jets, so the Rangers deserve some credit for driving up Pionk’s value. Depending upon whom you ask, the Rangers might have profited from the Jets overlooking dismal underlying numbers for Pionk.

Whatever Winnipeg’s actual opinion of Pionk might be, the bottom line is that Trouba is an enormous addition for the Rangers. You can get into a debate about how good or great Trouba really is, but the bottom line is that he’s immediately the Rangers’ best blueliner, and almost certainly by a wide margin.

(As great as the Pionk pump-and-dump turned out, the Rangers’ paltry defense opened up that scenario by … you know, being really bad.)

Putting on a hard hat for this rebuild

Yes, the Rangers have lucked out here and there (a huge lottery jump to the upcoming No. 2 pick, the Jets being in a bind so they needed to trade Trouba, the hilarity of the Zibanejad heist), but they’ve also made their own luck by making tough decisions.

Lesser teams would have kept all or some of Mats Zuccarello, Ryan McDonagh, Derek Stepan, and Antti Raanta, possibly losing them for nothing via free agency anyway. Instead, the Rangers made those often-painful choices, and are healing faster after pulling off those Band-Aids.

Thanks to that hard work, they’ve added a nice war chest of picks, prospects, players, and assets.

  • Again, Trouba is a top-pairing defenseman, if not a star, and is thus a huge addition.
  • Adam Fox is a hyped defensive prospect in his own right, costing the Rangers a couple draft picks.
  • We’ll see how Lias Andersson develops, but the Rangers wouldn’t have received the seventh pick of the 2017 NHL Draft if they didn’t trade Stepan and Raanta.
  • Maybe the Rangers didn’t get a perfect deal for McDonagh and J.T. Miller, but it was another example of New York loading up on volume in picks and prospects. For example: if K’Andre Miller (22nd overall in 2018) becomes a gem, note that the Rangers used some of their quantity of draft picks to move up a bit and snag him.
  • A Stars’ Game 7 win against the Blues in Round 2 would have turned a 2019 second-rounder into a 2019 first-rounder for New York, but the bottom line is that the Rangers got a nice deal for Zuccarello. Also, if Zuccarello re-signs with the Stars, the Rangers get a first-rounder in 2020, instead of a third-rounder. You simply need to make that call with a 31-year-old winger, even one as beloved as Zuccarello.
  • The 20th pick of the 2019 NHL Draft went from the Jets to the Rangers in the Kevin Hayes deal, and that the Rangers sent it back to Winnipeg in the Trouba trade. So, if the Rangers didn’t trade Hayes, they might not have landed Trouba. Again: load up on picks and assets, and load up on scenarios where you can get better. The Rangers have been masterful at this.
  • If there was hand-wringing over giving up assets for Adam Fox, the Rangers soothed some of them by landing some lesser picks for Adam McQuaid.

Phew, that’s a lot of stuff, and this is the abridged version of that trade book; you can see a fuller list via Cap Friendly’s handy trade history page.

Mix those above moves with some interesting picks like Filip Chytil and Vitali Kravtsov, and the Rangers are making leaps, rather than baby steps, toward being competitive once again.

Kaapo Kakko ranks as the biggest pending prospect addition, yet he could have some nice help thanks to the Rangers’ other moves.

More work to do

Speaking of other moves, the Rangers’ work isn’t done yet.

The most intriguing situation would come down to switching gears if Artemi Panarin really is interested in hitting Broadway.

The Trouba trade, not to mention the influx of talent headlined by Kakko, could make the Rangers a more appealing destination for Panarin. That’s especially true if the Rangers have even more tricks up their sleeves as Cap Friendly projects their cap space at about $19M (though a Trouba contract and Panarin pact would make that dry up fast).

The Rangers don’t have to rush things if they don’t want to, or if Panarin looks elsewhere, though.

For one thing, Mika Zibanejad rules, is just 26, and is a bargain for some time ($5.3M cap hit through 2021-22). A potential trio of DJ Z-Bad, The Bread Man, and (whatever nickname we give) Kakko could be one heck of a start.

Especially since the Rangers boast other interesting forwards at or near their primes.

Chris Kreider (28, $4.625M), Vladislav Namestnikov (26, $4M), and Jimmy Vesey (26, $2.275M) all enter contract years in 2018-19. The Rangers could trade one or more of those three forwards, either before the season or even at the trade deadline, or keep them around if they’re primed for immediate competition. Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reports that the Sabres have already contacted the Rangers about Vesey, so for all we know, more significant moves could come soon.

(If you ask me, Kreider is the standout of those three, although that might make him even more appealing to trade.)

Money clearing up

The Rangers’ salary structure should look a lot cleaner after 2020-21, too.

Consider three expensive, aging veterans who are all coming off the books after two more seasons: Henrik Lundqvist (37, $8.5M per season), Kevin Shattenkirk (30, $6.65M), and Marc Staal (32, $5.75M).

For some, the Rangers’ rebuild is held back by Lundqvist, as there’s an objective argument that it would be wiser to part ways with the future Hall of Famer. That makes sense in a vacuum, but context matters: trading Lundqvist would be a very difficult thing to spin PR-wise, particularly since the Rangers are already asking fans to be patient. Maybe trading away “King Henrik” would be too extreme for fans paying big bucks at MSG.

It’s probably healthier to look at that situation with a more optimistic outlook.

There’s a scenario where the Rangers do indeed make a quantum leap from rebuilder to contender, giving Lundqvist one or two more chances to chase that coveted first Stanley Cup.

On the other hand, maybe the Rangers strategically stink, and Lundqvist either: a) plays out his contract, thus eventually opening up a ton of space in two years or b) gets antsy and asks for a trade to a contender, likely easing angst from fans if the Rangers did make a trade. Maybe Rangers fans could cheer on Lundqvist somewhere else, as some Bruins fans did when Ray Bourque lifted a Stanley Cup with the Avalanche?

All things considered, it could be worse, right?

You can apply similar logic to Shattenkirk and Staal.

In Shattenkirk’s case, I wouldn’t be shocked if the American-born defenseman rebounded at least to some extent. In 2017-18, he was hampered by a knee injury that eventually prompted surgery. Last season, it was probably tough for any Rangers defenseman to look respectable. (Hey, Shattenkirk’s relative stats are OK.)

It’s not outrageous to picture Shattenkirk’s perception rise if Trouba helps his fellow right-handed defenseman slide into a sheltered, and less prominent role. If that happened, the Rangers could either get more out of Shattenkirk from improved play, or maybe even trading him. This is a league where teams are desperate for defense, so you never know.

Marc Staal seems like more of a lost cause, at least if you look at deeper numbers, yet as we’ve seen frequently in the NHL, plenty of teams either don’t care about analytics, or will value narratives about “sturdy veterans” more than any graphs or stats.

Those teams are more liable to pursue Staal now that his term is down to two years remaining, and the Rangers could also offer to retain salary to make something happen.

Now, it’s possible that none of Lundqvist, Shattenkirk, or Staal would get traded. There may be no takers, and all three have clauses of some kind to make deals more difficult to strike.

But even if they play things out, and so at a disappointing level, there’s light at the end of the tunnel, and that light isn’t even very far away.

***

After heaping all of this praise on the Rangers, it’s important to reiterate that there’s plenty of work to do, and plenty of ways where things could still go wrong. Maybe the Rangers make Bobby Holik-type free agent mistakes again once they start spending money, or maybe management gets impatient with losing and pulls the plug on the rebuild before the foundation settles?

Overall, though, you can’t ask for much better work than what we’ve seen from the Rangers, especially in the NHL, where teams aren’t always as bold as they should be when it comes to making trades and getting creative.

This could very well be the peak of the rebuild as far as a single week of moves goes, but this isn’t an isolated incident. The Rangers have done a brilliant job of building a brighter future after being in a pretty dark situation not that long ago.

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.

Flyers turn to winner Vigneault to snap championship drought

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VOORHEES, N.J. (AP) — The Tampa Bay Lightning team that just flamed out in the first round of the playoffs is dotted with former New York Rangers who played in the 2014 Stanley Cup Final:

Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi, Anton Stralman, J.T. Miller all helped the Rangers to get within three wins of their first championship since 1994. Five years later, a new team and a stunning elimination. They were used to deeper runs in New York with Alain Vigneault running the show. He led the Rangers to the Cup Final in his first season and bumped the win total by eight in his second.

After a year out of coaching, Vigneault takes over a fallen Philadelphia Flyers franchise. He seems to expect a similar quick fix.

”I was looking for was an opportunity to win; an opportunity in the short term to win a Stanley Cup,” Vigneault said Thursday.

Vigneault also led the Vancouver Canucks to the Stanley Cup Final, is a former NHL coach of the year and will spend the summer as the head coach for Team Canada at the world championships.

”It’s unusual and difficult to find coaches like Alain,” Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher said.

Indeed, Vigneault has done it all on the bench except win the Stanley Cup and he joins a franchise mired in one of the longest championship droughts in the league. The Flyers haven’t won it all since 1975 or even played for the Stanley Cup since 2010. Even worse, they missed the playoffs this season and haven’t made it past the second round since 2012.

And he thinks the Flyers can win in the short term?

Maybe, because the talent is there: Claude Giroux, Jake Voracek, James van Riemsdyk and Sean Couturier all have some heavy miles on their skates but are still productive veterans. There’s still untapped potential in a group of promising 20-somethings that include Travis Sanheim, Oskar Lindblom, Shayne Gostisbehere and Nolan Patrick. All have shown flashes of stardom along with infuriating inconsistency.

”I can get them to be more consistent. The way that I prepare a team for games I believe permits a player to understand what he needs to do against that team to be successful,” Vigneault said.

Couturier will get an early peek at Vigneault’s system at next month’s world championships in Slovakia. So will Carter Hart, the 20-year-old rookie goalie who nearly carried the Flyers into the playoffs after his December call up. He won eight straight games and pushed the Flyers (37-37-8 for 82 points) to the verge of a wild card spot until they collapsed over the final two weeks.

The Flyers used a record eight goalies this season. Vigneault knows a true No. 1 should be enough to carry the load in a championship chase. Vigneault rode Henrik Lundqvist in New York to within three wins of a championship and Roberto Luongo had four playoff shutouts when the Canucks reached the Final in 2011.

”I was very fortunate to have maybe two Hall of Fame goaltenders,” Vigneault said. ”Maybe we have a young goaltender that’s got a tremendous amount of potential and might become one of the top goalies in the league.”

One thing Vigneault won’t do is ask former Flyers coach Dave Hakstol (fired in December) and former GM Ron Hextall (fired in November) for a scouting report on the team. Both men are part of his staff at worlds. Giroux, the Flyers captain, is the only player Vigneault has called.

Vigneault, who turns 58 in May, has coached 16 NHL seasons for the Montreal Canadiens, Canucks and Rangers. His teams made the playoffs 11 times and he was named NHL coach of the year in 2006-2007 with Vancouver.

”Players look for direction. If you give a player and a team a path and you do this, you do it this way, you put in the time, you’re going to have success,” Vigneault said. ”You do the same thing with your team, they’re going to follow you.”

History suggests players will follow Vigneault. He took two teams in major hockey markets to the Final and did it in large part because of a hot goalie and an overachieving roster. The Rangers wore down because almost every series went the distance (four Game 7s) and Vigneault took them way behind their talent level.

Vigneault has an offensive superstar in Giroux (82 points) but Patrick (a former No. 2 pick) and van Riemsdyk have more name value than skill. No matter, the coach always pays the price in Philly: Vigneault is the fifth coach since the start of the 2013 season, and he’d like this commitment to last.

”You know what we have to do? We have to win,” he said.

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

Lightning limp into Game 4 without Hedman, Stralman

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The Tampa Bay Lightning are facing a potential sweep in Game 4 on Tuesday (7 p.m. ET; CNBC; Live stream), and they’re going to have to find a way to win without Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman.

Head coach Jon Cooper announced that Hedman and Stralman are out, while Alex Killorn is a game-time decision. Of course, the biggest lineup note is that Nikita Kucherov is back in the mix after sitting out Game 3 thanks to his one-game suspension, but these are big absences on the defensive side.

Via The Athletic’s Joe Smith, the Lightning will continue to roll with:

Mikhail SergachevDan Girardi
Ryan McDonaghErik Cernak
Braydon CoburnJan Rutta

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

In a detailed, fantastic piece for The Athletic (sub required), Alison Lukan detailed how the Blue Jackets’ forecheck (by way of a 1-2-2 setup) has been giving the Lightning fits so far in this Round 1 series.

“(We are) trying to find ways to limit their opportunities through their speed and their skill,” Brandon Dubinsky said. “That’s making sure we play disciplined and stay above the puck. When you go, it’s about not getting beat up the ice, and if (a Lightning player) moves the puck and your partner goes, you have to make sure you get back and get ahead of that guy and reload for him.”

Earlier in Round 1, much was made about Hedman being on the ice for some glaring Blue Jackets goals, particularly a David Savard goal that was key in Columbus’ Game 1 comeback. It was tough to shake the impression that injury issues limited Hedman’s mobility, and the big Swede missing big games only strengthens that possibility.

Yet, as much as Hedman’s missed on the defensive side, his absence really hurts the Lightning’s ability to break Columbus’ system with crisp, clean passes (and also the ability to skate the puck up the ice, when that makes sense).

The Hedman loss stings, as you’d frankly expect when a team is missing a Norris-level defenseman. It also might push someone useful like Sergachev a little out of their (or Cooper’s) comfort zone.

On the bright side, Lukan points out that Kucherov isn’t just a great weapon for Tampa Bay in the offensive zone, but is also one of the Lightning’s best players when it comes to the transition game.

Heading into Game 4, the Lightning played into typical cliches by talking about taking things “one period at a time,” and there might be some wisdom within the well-worn words. More than anything else, the Lightning could really benefit from starting Tuesday’s contest with a lead, preferably an early one. If Columbus is chasing a score, the Blue Jackets might be a little bit more willing to “cheat” or get too aggressive, potentially opening up lanes and other opportunities for the Lightning to really get rolling.

Still, between the Blue Jackets’ commitment to clogging things up, officials generally putting away their whistles when it comes to obstruction, and Sergei Bobrovsky‘s bank-account-fattening brilliance, Columbus is unlikely to make this easy on the Lightning. Not having Hedman, Stralman, and possibly Killorn only makes the mountain taller.

The Lightning hope to avoid being swept by Columbus Tuesday night at 7 p.m. ET on CNBC (Live stream)

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.

‘Good luck!’ Lightning carry burden of Presidents’ Trophy

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Jon Cooper and Todd Reirden were coaching at the All-Star Game in January when the topic of winning the Presidents’ Trophy came up.

With Cooper’s Tampa Bay Lightning cruising toward winning it as the NHL’s best team, he asked the Washington coach how to handle it. Reirden was less than helpful.

”I said: ‘Good luck! I don’t know what you’re talking about,”’ Reirden recalled with a grin.

Finishing at the top of the league comes with expectations, but only two of 13 Presidents’ Trophy winners in the salary cap era have gone on to win the Stanley Cup and none since 2013. If this is the burden to bear for Tampa Bay, the Lightning seem OK with it.

”Nobody in there is sitting there thinking now we’ve got a path to the Stanley Cup finals,” Cooper said. ”As a matter of fact, actually the odds are probably grossly against us just in the sense there’s going to be 15 other teams. Any time you go in somewhere and say, ‘OK, we’re going to pick this team’ and somebody’s got the field, usually the field is the teams to take.”

Taking the field this time means betting against a team that was 21 points clear of anyone else in the league, has the top scorer and likely MVP in Nikita Kucherov, a Vezina Trophy candidate in goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy and looks built for this moment. Of course, so did the Nashville Predators last year.

When the Predators clinched the Presidents’ Trophy against the Capitals, who won it the previous two years, winger Filip Forsberg said: ”We’ve seen especially here that the trophy doesn’t mean that much going forward.”

It didn’t, and Nashville lost in the second round to Winnipeg in seven games.

The Capitals have won the Presidents’ Trophy three times in the Alex Ovechkin era – under coach Bruce Boudreau in 2010 and Barry Trotz in 2016 and 2017 (with Reirden as his top assistant) – and lost in the first or second round each time.

”Obviously it comes with a little bit of pressure,” Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom said. ”You are the best team in the regular season and you obviously have more work to do I think than just regular season.”

Boudreau, now with Minnesota, said the pressure stems from constant questions players face because ”they can’t away from it” more than a feeling of internal superiority. But nine years after getting beaten by red-hot goaltender Jaroslav Halak and Montreal in the first round, Boudreau vividly remembers a Game 6 feeling of, ”Oh my God, if we lose this game!”

They did. Tampa Bay defenseman Braydon Coburn remembers it clearly because it helped pave the way for his run to the Cup Final with Philadelphia. He and his Lightning teammates are keenly aware of other teams’ missteps in the same spot they find themselves in now.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

”You look to the past,” Coburn said. ”You try to take them as lessons. I don’t think you try to psych yourself out in any sort of way. But I think you look back to that Washington series against Montreal, I remember it very well. It was Halak. He played out of his mind. That’s the thing about playoffs is you never know what’s going to happen.”

What should happen based on 1,271 regular season games is Steven Stamkos raising the Stanley Cup over his head in June. But that was also the case for the San Jose Sharks in 2009 with Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau in their primes, and they, too, lost in the first round.

”It’s one of those things you can’t let down your guard,” said Marleau, now with Toronto. ”You can’t feel comfortable for a second. It’s a brand new season. Anything can happen. There’s bounces, inches. It’s a game of inches. Just not to take your foot off the gas. If anything, it’s the time to really bear down.”

The Lightning clinched the NHL’s best record with several games left in the season, which takes away some of urgency on the ice – in a bad way.

”We weren’t playing playoff hockey – we were playing high-end, regular-season hockey, which is a big difference,” said Minnesota’s Eric Fehr, who was on that Capitals team in 2010. ”It’s just the intensity of taking the puck to the net and not playing as much on the perimeter and not trying to make fancy plays. You see the high-end teams in the regular season, they’re making fancy plays, they’re scoring 3-on-2 goals. You get to the playoffs and it’s point shots, tips and battles in front of the net. That’s the difference is you have to be playing that style of game come playoff time.”

Tampa Bay was the highest-scoring team in the league, so it’s an adjustment to playoff-style hockey but something the group is used to after reaching the Eastern Conference finals last year. Forward Adam Erne said the ”sour taste” from a seven-game loss to Washington is a motivation, and more experienced teammates are trying to impart some knowledge about what to do next.

”Just keep a present mind frame,” said defenseman Ryan McDonagh, who won the Presidents’ Trophy with the New York Rangers in 2015. ”That’ been the best thing with this group all year is we’ve just focused on each day at a time and not look at big picture and what’s going on around us, what’s going on with other teams.”

All well and good, but previous top teams have done the same and not been able to live up to the billing. Carolina captain Justin Williams played on the 2016 and 2017 Capitals Presidents’ Trophy winning teams and acknowledged maybe it played a role in players gripping their sticks a little too tightly in the playoffs.

”It’s really hard to get in and there’s really no clear favorites once you get in,” Williams said. ”But playing the favorite is a little bit different with the expectations for you to win.”

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

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