Nikita Kucherov’s Next Trick? Helping the Lightning Win the Stanley Cup
For Nikita Kucherov, hockey has developed into a lucrative living, but perhaps after his career as a wing for the Tampa Bay Lightning comes to a close, he may try his hand as a magician or a hypnotist.
His signature move consists of a move where he drags the puck and quickly transitions between his forehand and backhand, mesmerizing a goaltender into opening a space between his pads. First the goalie sees the puck, then it vanishes, only to reappear in the back of the net. The shot? There was none. Kucherov simply let go of the puck and let it slip between the goalie’s legs.
“He’s very unpredictable, what he’s going to do with the puck,” said Washington Capitals wing Alex Ovechkin, who, like Kucherov, is a Russian goal scorer.
Ovechkin was on hand when Kucherov, 24, broke out the move on Ovechkin’s teammate Braden Holtby at this year’s All-Star tournament, during which Kucherov posted a hat trick. Ovechkin also had a front-row seat for a repeat performance, when Kucherov scored against Holtby on a breakaway that sealed a victory less than a month later.
“When you pull it back on your forehand, you kind of make a move like you’re shooting,” he said. “When you pull it back, the goalie’s already on his knees, and when you go around him, that makes him think you’re going to your backhand. While they’re pushing from their left leg to their right, they open up space between the stick and the left pad.”
If he deals in the unexpected now, it may be because as a slight but well-coordinated youth player, being elusive and inventive were matters of survival. Even today, his measurements listed in programs — 6 feet tall, 185 pounds — seem generous.
Kucherov’s work ethic and physical fluidity run in the family. His father and grandfather were talented on the soccer field and had long careers in the Russian military. In difficult economic times, she cleaned the local rink to get her son secondhand skates and Soviet-era equipment.
Kucherov N.H.L. success was unexpected. He said his sights were on playing in Russian’s top pro league, the Kontinental Hockey League. Despite a meteoric rise in his draft year that culminated in setting a tournament record for points in the under-18 world championships, he fell to the bottom of the second round in 2011.
“He probably saw what kind of player I was going to be,” Kucherov said of Yzerman. “He trusted me. He’s done a great job and he’s just a great person. He’s a smart guy and he used to be a smart player. He treats players, even at a young age, as if they have an opportunity to be a good player in the N.H.L.”
Kucherov played part of the 2012-13 season in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, where he learned English and adapted to the North American ice surface. He made his N.H.L. debut in November 2013, scoring on Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist the first time he touched the puck.
The Hall of Famer Pavel Bure said he could see Kucherov taking his place in the pantheon of productive Russian wings, which includes players like himself, his former teammate Alexander Mogilny and Ovechkin.
“When he was a child, he preferred to listen; now he has changed,” Kurdin said through an interpreter. “He became more communicative even though he is still a good listener and observer. He is demanding on the ice. I would say that is probably my influence.”
Kucherov rewarded that influence after signing his current contract in 2016, a three-year deal worth less than $5 million per season, which makes his M.V.P.-caliber performances the past two seasons among the best values in the N.H.L.
He kept a promise, ostensibly made in jest, to Kurdin.
“We used to spend a lot of time in traffic jams and one day, when he was 7 or 8 years old, I saw him concentrating with a look on his face and I said, ‘When you reach the N.H.L. and get rich, you will buy me a new car,’ ” Kurdin said. “It was just a joke to change his mood, put a smile on his face.”