What to Expect from Nikita Kucherov

Not since Steven Stamkos has a Lightning scoring prospect generated as much excitement as Nikita Kucherov.

Regarded as one of the best players not playing in the NHL, Kucherov will lose that label tonight as the club’s 2011 second round pick will make his NHL debut against the Rangers.

Pure and simple, Kucherov is a point machine. He first got on the elite-scorers map when he shattered records at the 2011 U18 championships when he had 11 goals and 21 points in seven games. He followed that up with 24 goals and 43 points in just 23 MHL games in Russia, then had 29 goals and 63 points in 33 Quebec Major Junior Hockey League games last season. As a rookie in AHL Syracuse this year, Kucherov has 13 goals and 24 points in 16 games. He also had 15 points (7 goals) in 14 World Junior Championship games spread out over two tournaments.

Originally known primarily for his shot, Kucherov’s vision is the best to come from a Lightning draft since Brad Richards. He sees the ice exceptionally well and has the ability to make every pass needed. Add to that quick decision-making and he’s a power play weapon.

Kucherov has as good a one-time pass as we’ve seen in quite some time out of a Lightning prospect. This is because he can think the game faster than most players; his hockey sense is off the charts.

As a scorer, Kucherov finds open space in the offensive zone to set up his NHL-caliber shot. He’s most often seen in Marty St. Louis’ office to the goalie’s left and like Marty can dish or hit the tough-angle shot as a lefty on the power play. Whereas some snipers need a set-up man, Kucherov has the one-on-one skills to create his own shot (or passing lane).

Originally knocked – as many Russians are – as being on the lazy side (this was brought up and shot down quickly last year in the QMJHL), Kucherov’s present passion level and will to win is as high as anyone in the system. He loves a good celly to be sure (perhaps too much), but as seen in last year’s World Junior Championships after he didn’t convert a game-tying shootout attempt (he nailed the game-winner the game before), he doesn’t accept losing well. Kucherov slammed his stick into the boards in anger as though he asked for the responsibility of advancing Russia in the tourney and don’t match his promise.

Kucherov’s willingness to come to North America last year to work on his all-around game speaks to his commitment as a team player. While he understandably still looks green in his own zone, the effort is there. That will be his biggest challenge at the NHL level and was a reason the Lightning wanted him learning the pro game in Syracuse despite his NHL-ready skill and offensive ability.

He also needs to add weight to his slight frame (listed at 171 pounds) and gain the professional experience that only time and maturity can teach. The 5-11 winger boasts good, but not great speed. He’s not Slater Koekkoek in the skating department (few are), but he has above-average jets – enough to play on a Lightning team with a speed identity.

As only time stands in the way of Kucherov being an high-level NHL scorer, it would have been ideal for him to stay in the AHL and grow physically and mentally. Injuries in Tampa changed that plan and how quickly those injuries heal could determine how long Kucherov stays in Florida. For a team lacking natural scorers in the absence of Stamkos, if Kucherov starts his NHL career on fire, he could be up for a while – a long while.

Sorry, Syracuse.