Learning to be a better defensive player in hockey is like a lot of things in life. It doesn’t come naturally. You have to want to be good at it.
Lightning prospect Nikita Kucherov has plenty of talent to be productive on the offensive side of the ice as a pro, but perhaps more importantly he said his goal is to be a better all-around player.
“He’s really bought in,” Lightning Director of Amateur Scouting Al Murray said. “Nikita’s committed himself to working hard at both ends of the ice and improving his off-ice training.”
Kucherov was selected in the second round of the 2011 NHL Draft after he put up 21 points in seven games at the Under-18 World Championships and averaged more than a point a game in the Russian junior league. Afterward, the right wing scored 15 points in 14 games during two World Junior Championships to win silver and bronze medals.
A shoulder injury did not allow the 5-11, 171-pound Kucherov to participate at the Lightning’s Development Camp last summer, so he is soaking up everything he can this year.
“I’m trying to improve my power skating and will try to get bigger,” Kucherov said. “In the NHL, everybody is strong. I have to work on this a lot this summer.”
If Kucherov’s game continues on the trajectory it had last season, the Lightning will have a player with high first-round value. The 20-year-old native of Moscow got his first consistent taste of North American hockey and it was a culture shock.
Kucherov said playing in the smaller rinks made it tough the first few games, with defenders right on top of him at every turn. He slowly adapted and enjoyed the atmosphere of Canadian Juniors. He said it was like a mini-NHL, with everyone focusing on hockey.
It was not easy early on though with the Quebec Remparts. The team had three European imports, including fellow Russian Mikhail Grigorenko and Danish standout Nick Sorensen, and only two could play on a given night. Kucherov was in and out of the lineup, posting 10 points in six games.
“I didn’t like sitting in the stands watching my team play,” Kucherov said.
Soon Quebec traded Kucherov to Rouyn-Noranda and Kucherov fit right in. He recorded 27 goals and 26 assists in 27 regular-season games and registered 24 points in 14 playoff contests for the Huskies, but it wasn’t just his offense that stood out.
Rouyn-Noranda coach Andre Tourigny, who was recently hired as Patrick Roy’s assistant with the Colorado Avalanche, challenged Kucherov.
“He told [Kucherov], ‘Here’s what you’re good at offensively and I’m not going to take that away from you,” Murray said. “But if you expect to play in the NHL, you have to improve these defensive and competitive aspects of the game.’”
Murray said Kucherov took on the challenge eagerly and kept coming back to Tourigny’s office for more instructions.
“His game took a huge step,” Murray said.
Kucherov said it wasn’t a difficult thing to do.
“[Tourigny] helped a lot,” Kucherov said. “He showed some sequences and how they played in Tampa Bay. I learned about how to position myself in the defensive zone better, the breakout and forechecking. He said, ‘You’re a good player, but if you do this you will be better.’”
Kucherov will spend the summer in Montreal working with fellow Lightning prospect Tanner Richard and Tampa Bay strength and conditioning coach Mark Lambert. Murray said Kucherov is doing everything he possibly can to be a player.
He is also patient. Kucherov said one of the most important things he needs to do is focus on listening to his coaches and taking any advice he can get from the older players.
“I will work really hard to make Syracuse,” Kucherov said. “After that, I will see what’s going to happen.”
One thing Kucherov has learned over the last year is that he can be successful in the North American style of hockey and he has enjoyed the support he has gotten from everyone.
“I came here [only last year],” Kucherov said. “And I feel like I want to play here the rest of my life.”
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