Slater Koekkoek

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

Pro Hockey Talk’s 2019 NHL Trade Deadline Tracker

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The PHT NHL Trade Deadline Tracker is your one-stop shop for all completed deals. The 2019 NHL trade deadline is Monday, Feb. 25 at 3 p.m. ET.

Feb. 25, 2019
Winnipeg Jets:
Alex Broadhurst
Columbus Blue Jackets:
Future considerations

Feb. 25, 2019
Pittsburgh Penguins:
Chris Wideman
Florida Panthers:
Jean-Sebastien Dea

Feb. 25, 2019
Winnipeg Jets:
Nic Petan
Toronto Maple Leafs:
Par Lindholm

Feb. 25, 2019
Vancouver Canucks:
Linus Karlsson
San Jose Sharks:
Jonathan Dahlen

Feb. 25, 2019
Winnipeg Jets:
Bogdan Kiselevich
Florida Panthers:
 2021 seventh-round pick

Feb. 25, 2019
Winnipeg Jets:
Nathan Beaulieu
Buffalo Sabres:
2019 sixth-round pick

Feb. 25, 2019 (PHT analysis)
Pittsburgh Penguins:
Erik Gudbranson
Vancouver Canucks:
Tanner Pearson

Feb. 25, 2019
Winnipeg Jets:
Matt Hendricks
Minnesota Wild:
 2020 seventh-round pick

[Winners and losers of the 2019 NHL Trade Deadline]

Feb. 25, 2019
Anaheim Ducks: 2019 sixth-round pick
St. Louis Blues:
Michael Del Zotto

Feb. 25, 2019 (PHT analysis)
Boston Bruins:
Marcus Johansson
New Jersey Devils:
2019 second-round pick, 2020 fourth-round pick

Feb. 25, 2019 (PHT analysis)
Philadelphia Flyers:
Ryan Hartman, conditional 2020 fourth-round pick
Nashville Predators:
Wayne Simmonds

Feb. 25, 2019 (PHT analysis)
Vegas Golden Knights: Mark Stone, Tobias Lindberg
Ottawa Senators: Erik Brannstrom, Oscar Lindberg, 2020 second-round pick

Feb. 25, 2019 (PHT analysis)
Minnesota Wild:
Kevin Fiala
Nashville Predators:
Mikael Granlund

Feb. 25, 2019
Los Angeles Kings: Conditional 2020 fourth-round pick
Calgary Flames:
Oscar Fantenberg

Feb. 25, 2019
Columbus Blue Jackets:
Adam McQuaid
New York Rangers:
Julius Bergman, 2019 fourth-round pick, 2019 seventh-round pick

Feb. 25, 2019 (PHT analysis)
Colorado Avalanche:
Derick Brassard, 2020 conditional sixth-round pick
Florida Panthers:
2020 third-round pick

Feb. 25, 2019
Florida Panthers:
Cliff Pu, future considerations
Carolina Hurricanes:
Tomas Jurco, future considerations

Feb. 25, 2019
Montreal Canadiens: Jordan Weal
Arizona Coyotes:
Michael Chaput

Feb. 25, 2019 (PHT analysis)
New York Rangers:
Brendan Lemieux, 2019 first-round pick, 2022 conditional fourth-round pick
Winnipeg Jets:
 Kevin Hayes

Feb. 25, 2019 (PHT analysis)
New Jersey Devils:
2022 fifth-round pick
Columbus Blue Jackets:
Keith Kinkaid

Feb. 25, 2019
Anaheim Ducks: Patrick Sieloff
Ottawa Senators:
Brian Gibbons

Feb. 25, 2019 (PHT analysis)
San Jose Sharks: Gustav Nyquist
Detroit Red Wings: 2019 second-round pick, 2020 conditional third-round pick

Feb. 24, 2019
Toronto Maple Leafs: Nic Baptiste
Nashville Predators: Future considerations

Feb. 24, 2019
Los Angeles Kings: Matheson Iacopelli
Blackhawks: Spencer Watson

Feb. 24, 2019 (PHT analysis)
Buffalo Sabres: Brandon Montour
Anaheim Ducks: Brendan Guhle, conditional 2019 first-round pick

Feb. 23, 2019 (PHT analysis)
Columbus Blue Jackets:
Ryan Dzingel, 2019 seventh-round pick
Ottawa Senators: Anthony Duclair, 2020 second-round pick, 2021 second-round pick

Feb. 23, 2019 (PHT analysis)
Dallas Stars:
Mats Zuccarello
New York Rangers: Conditional picks – 2019 second-round pick, 2020 third-round pick. Both can become first-round picks.

Feb. 23, 2019
New Jersey Devils
: Connor Carrick, 2019 third-round pick
Dallas Stars: Ben Lovejoy

Feb. 22, 2019 (PHT analysis)
Washington Capitals: Nick Jensen, 2019 fifth-round pick
Detroit Red Wings: Madison Bowey, 2020 second-round pick

Feb. 22, 2019
Florida Panthers:
Vincent Praplan
San Jose Sharks: 
Future considerations

Feb. 22, 2019 (PHT analysis)
Columbus Blue Jackets: Matt Duchene, Julius Bergman
Ottawa Senators:
Vitaly Abramov, Jonathan Davidsson, 2019 lottery-protected first-round pick, 2020 conditional first-round pick.

Feb. 21, 2019 (PHT analysis)
Washington Capitals:
Carl Hagelin
Los Angeles Kings: 2019 third-round pick, 2020 conditional sixth-round pick. LA retains 50 percent of Hagelin’s cap hit.

Feb. 20, 2019 (PHT analysis)
Boston Bruins:
Charlie Coyle
Minnesota Wild:
Ryan Donato, conditional 2019 fifth-round pick

Feb. 18, 2019
New York Rangers: Darren Raddysh
Chicago Blackhawks:
Peter Holland

Feb. 16, 2019 (PHT analysis)
Edmonton Oilers: Sam Gagner
Vancouver Canucks: 
Ryan Spooner

Feb. 15, 2019 (PHT analysis)
Philadelphia Flyers:
Cam Talbot
Edmonton Oilers:
Anthony Stolarz

Feb. 12, 2019
New York Rangers: 2020 seventh-round pick
Vancouver Canucks: 
Marek Mazanec

Feb. 11, 2019
Columbus Blue Jackets: conditional seventh-round 2019 pick
Pittsburgh Penguins: Blake Siebenaler

Feb. 11, 2019
Montreal Canadiens: Nate Thompson, 2019 fifth-round pick
Los Angeles Kings: 2019 fourth-round pick

Feb. 9, 2019 (PHT Analysis)
Philadelphia Flyers: Dave Schlemko, Byron Froese
Montreal Canadiens: Dale Weise, Christian Folin

Feb. 8, 2019
Arizona Coyotes: Emil Pettersson
Nashville Predators: Laurent Dauphin, Adam Helewka

Feb. 6, 2019
Nashville Predators:
Cody McLeod
New York Rangers:
2020 seventh-round pick

Feb. 6, 2019 (PHT analysis)
Nashville Predators
: Brian Boyle
New Jersey Devils: 2019 second-round pick

Feb. 6, 2019
Ottawa Senators: Jean-Christophe Beaudin
Colorado Avalanche: Max McCormick

Feb. 1, 2019 (PHT analysis)
Pittsburgh Penguins: Nick Bjugstad, Jared McCann
Florida Panthers: Derick Brassard, Riley Sheahan, 2019 second-round picks and two 2019 fourth-round picks

Jan. 30, 2019
New Jersey Devils
: Ryan Murphy
Minnesota Wild: Michael Kapla

Jan. 28, 2019 (PHT analysis)
Toronto Maple Leafs: Jake Muzzin
Los Angeles Kings: Carl Grundstrom, Sean Durzi, 2019 first-round pick

Jan. 28, 2019 (PHT analysis)
Pittsburgh Penguins
: 2019 fourth-round pick
Dallas Stars: Jamie Oleksiak

Jan. 24, 2019
Chicago Blackhawks: Dominik Kubalik
Los Angeles Kings: 2019 fifth-round pick

Jan. 21, 2019
Minnesota Wild
: Brad Hunt, 2019 sixth-round pick
Vegas Golden Knights: 2019 conditional fifth-round pick

Jan. 17, 2019
Buffalo Sabres
: Taylor Leier
Philadelphia Flyers: Justin Bailey

Jan. 17, 2019 (PHT analysis)
Minnesota Wild
: Victor Rask
Carolina Hurricanes: Nino Niederreiter

Jan. 16, 2019 (PHT analysis)
Anaheim Ducks
: Michael Del Zotto
Vancouver Canucks: Luke Schenn, 2020 seventh-round pick

Jan. 16, 2019 (PHT analysis)
Anaheim Ducks
: Derek Grant
Pittsburgh Penguins: Joseph Blandisi

Jan. 16, 2019 (PHT analysis)
Minnesota Wild
: Pontus Aberg
Anaheim Ducks: Justin Kloos

Jan. 14, 2019
New York Rangers
: Connor Brickley
Nashville Predators: Cole Schneider

Jan. 14, 2019 (PHT analysis)
Anaheim Ducks
: Devin Shore
Dallas Stars: Andrew Cogliano

Jan. 11, 2019
Chicago Blackhawks
: Slater Koekkoek, 2019 fifth-round pick
Tampa Bay Lightning: Jan Rutta, 2019 seventh-round pick

Jan. 11, 2019 (PHT analysis)
Arizona Coyotes: Jordan Weal
Philadelphia Flyers: 2019 sixth-round pick

Jan. 11, 2019
Ottawa Senators: Cody Goloubef
Boston Bruins: Paul Carey

Jan. 11, 2019
Ottawa Senators
: Morgan Klimchuk
Toronto Maple Leafs: Gabriel Gagne

Jan. 3, 2019
Winnipeg Jets: Jimmy Oligny
Vegas Golden Knights: Futures

Jan. 3, 2019
St. Louis Blues
: Jared Coreau
Anaheim Ducks: Futures

Jan. 2, 2019
Ottawa Senators:
Anders Nilsson, Darren Archibald
Vancouver Canucks: Mike McKenna, Tom Pyatt, 2019 sixth-round pick

WATCH LIVE: Red Wings host Blackhawks on Wednesday Night Hockey

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Blackhawks have won nine of their last 11 games (9-2-0), including seven straight wins from Jan. 20 – Feb. 10, to climb right back into the playoff race. On the morning of January 20, exactly one month ago, the Blackhawks had 41 points and were dead last in the NHL. Now, as of Tuesday morning, they have 59 points, and are just one point behind the Minnesota Wild, who currently owns the second wild card in the Western Conference.

Patrick Kane is having arguably the best year of his career, and should the Blackhawks rally to make the playoffs, he could perhaps win his second career Hart Trophy. He’s currently on a season-best 18-game point streak (40 points: 14 goals, 26 assists), and is averaging 1.53 points/game, which would be the best of his 12-year career. He has an assist in 17 straight games… only two players in NHL history have posted a longer assist streak than Kane – Wayne Gretzky (23 games – 1990-91) & Adam Oates (18 games – 1992-93).

The NHL Trade Deadline is less than a week away and Detroit has a few key players that are set to become unrestricted free agents at the end of the season: Gustav Nyquist, Thomas Vanek, Niklas Kronwall, Nick Jensen, Luke Witkowski and Jimmy Howard.

Red Wings GM Ken Holland has been weighing whether he should try to sign some of the pending free agents or trade them – with a focus on Howard, Nyquist and Jensen specifically. Holland said he’d like to sign all three to extensions – and all three players have expressed a desire to stay – but a deal must work for both sides.

“I need to weigh which of them we consider re-signing because they can help us in ’19-20 and then we maybe need to do something to add to that in the summer of ’19 because if you just trade all those players away your team is worse,” he said. “So now you got to make moves to get back to where you’re at and even beyond and that’s hard to do in the summer.”

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

What: Chicago Blackhawks at Detroit Red Wings
Where: Little Caesars Arena
When: Wednesday, Feb. 20, 6:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Blackhawks-Red Wings stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

BLACKHAWKS
Drake CaggiulaJonathan Toews – Patrick Kane
Alex DeBrincatDylan StromeDominik Kahun
Brandon SaadArtem AnisimovDylan Sikura
Chris KunitzMarcus KrugerJohn Hayden

Duncan KeithErik Gustafsson
Carl DahlstromConnor Murphy
Slater KoekkoekGustav Forsling

Starting goalie: Cam Ward

RED WINGS
Tyler BertuzziDylan LarkinAnthony Mantha
Thomas Vanek – Frans Nielsen – Gustav Nyquist
Andreas AthanasiouLuke GlendeningChristoffer Ehn
Darren HelmJacob De La RoseJustin Abdelkader

Niklas Kronwall – Mike Green
Danny DeKeyser – Nick Jensen
Trevor DaleyFilip Hronek

Starting goalie: Jimmy Howard

MORE: Jonathan Toews is back

For the first time in his career, Mike Tirico will call play-by-play for an NHL game on Wednesday when the Red Wings host the Blackhawks. He’ll be joined in the booth by Eddie Olczyk and ‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst Brian Boucher. Pre-game coverage starts at 6:30 p.m. ET with NHL Live, hosted by Kathryn Tappen alongside Mike Milbury, Keith Jones and Bob McKenzie.

WATCH LIVE: Blackhawks meet Capitals on NBC

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NBC’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Sunday’s matchup between the Chicago Blackhawks and Washington Capitals. Coverage begins at 12:30 p.m. ET on NBC. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Capitals have hit their biggest road block in their title defense after going 3-5-2 in their last 10 games, including four straight losses (0-3-1). The last time Washington lost four straight games was in March of 2017. During this four-game losing streak, the Caps have been outscored 12-1 in 5-on-5 play, and the lone goal in that scenario came against Nashville with the team trailing 7-1 late in the third period.

The last time the Capitals lost five straight games was Oct. 26 to Nov. 4 2014.

Alex Ovechkin enters this game tied with Dave Andreychuk for 14th place on the all-time goals (640) list. He is also only five points away from tying Hockey Hall of Famer Sergei Fedorov for the most in League history by a Russian player (1,179).

The Blackhawks have lost seven of their eight games in the new year (1-4-3), including five straight losses (0-3-2) and are once again last in the NHL. Since Jeremy Colliton took charge on November 6, Chicago has lost 24 of their 34 games under their new head coach (10-18-6) after going 6-6-3 in 15 games under Joel Quenneville. The Hawks are coming off a 4-3 loss to the Rangers on Thursday.

A bright spot for Chicago has been its power play which has now scored in seven consecutive games (9-for-21, 42.9 percent). That hot streak has put them in the middle of the pack in the NHL at 18.9 percent for the season.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 12:30 P.M. ET – NBC]

What: Washington Capitals at Chicago Blackhawks
Where: United Center
When: Sunday, Jan. 20, 12:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBC
Live stream: You can watch the Capitals-Blackhawks stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

BLACKHAWKS
Drake CaggiulaJonathan ToewsPatrick Kane
Alex DeBrincatDylan StromeDominik Kahun
Brandon SaadDavid KampfMarcus Kruger
John HaydenArtem AnisimovChris Kunitz

Duncan KeithBrent Seabrook
Carl DahlstromConnor Murphy
Slater KoekkoekErik Gustafsson

Starting goalie: Collin Delia

CAPITALS
Alex Ovechkin – Nicklas BackstromT.J. Oshie
Jakub VranaLars EllerTom Wilson
Andre BurakovskyEvgeny KuznetsovBrett Connolly
Chandler StephensonNic DowdDevante Smith-Pelly

Dmitry OrlovJohn Carlson
Michal KempnyMatt Niskanen
Brooks OrpikMadison Bowey

Starting goalie: Braden Holtby

Six-time Emmy Award-winner Mike ‘Doc’ Emrick, U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame member Eddie Olczyk, and ‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst Pierre McGuire will have the call from United Center.

Trades: Flyers send Weal to Coyotes; Blackhawks get Koekkoek from Tampa

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In what could be the first of many trades by new general manager Chuck Fletcher in the coming weeks, the Philadelphia Flyers made a minor deal on Friday afternoon by sending forward Jordan Weal to the Arizona Coyotes in exchange for defender Jacob Graves and a 2019 sixth-round draft pick.

Weal, 26, had appeared in 28 games this season for the Flyers, scoring three goals to go with six assists and is set to be an unrestricted free agent after this season.

For the Coyotes, it is obviously a short-term band-aid type of move for a team that has been absolutely decimated by injuries this season. Things only managed to get worse this week when the team announced that Nick Schmaltz will be sidelined for the remainder of the season due to a lower-body injury.

For Philadelphia, meanwhile, it could signal the start of a fire sale leading up to the NHL trade deadline. It has been a bitterly disappointing season that has resulted in massive changes throughout the organization, from the general manager’s office to the head coach. The only question that remains is just how many changes they make on the ice and whether they decide to tear it all down or simply re-tool. Wayne Simmonds is the big name to watch in the coming weeks as he, too, is set to be an unrestricted free agent after this season and could be an attractive player for a contender.

[Related: Why wait to trade for Flyers’ Simmonds?]

This was not the only minor deal of the day.

The Chicago Blackhawks and Tampa Bay Lightning also completed a trade with Tampa sending defender Slater Koekkoek and a 2019 fifth-round draft pick to Chicago for Jan Rutta and a 2019 seventh-round pick.

Koekkoek was a first-round draft pick by the Lightning in 2012 (No. 10 overall). He was one of two first-round picks by the team that season, going nine spots ahead of current starting goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy.

What stands out about this deal for Tampa Bay is that the organization only has two first-round draft picks since 2010 remaining in the organization (Vasilevskiy and 2017 first-round pick Callan Foote). Every other first-round pick since then has been traded (either the pick itself, or the player the Lightning picked after the fact).

Koekkoek has appeared in 85 games so far in his career, scoring five goals to go with nine assists. That includes his nine games this season, where he tallied a single goal.

Rutta signed with the Blackhawks prior to the 2017-18 season, appearing in 80 games over the past two seasons.

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.