Bolts prospect Nikita Kucherov adapting well to life in North America
Please excuse the United States’ neighbor to the north if the temperatures in Canada this time of year begin to feel a little bit warmer.
At least in and around the parts of Rouyn-Noranda, that is.
The city is home to the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, whom since the arrival of Tampa Bay Lightning prospect Nikita Kucherov, have seemed to catch fire.
Since Kucherov joined the Huskies in a trade from the Quebec Remparts on November 21, the club has gone on to win seven of its previous nine games, including three straight.
Prior to the trade, Rouyn-Noranda had dropped five consecutive games, including two in a row by a score of 8-3. Kucherov, meanwhile, has elevated his game and has seemed to fit right in to his new surroundings as he emerges as a great talent at the Canadian junior level.
“The first couple of games, I didn’t feel very comfortable,” Kucherov said. “Now it’s getting better. I feel great.”
Since joining Rouyn-Noranda, Kucherov has collected six goals and 12 points in just seven games to go along with a plus-six rating. His goal output is double what it was as a member of the Remparts, while his point total is two better than that with his former club. Kucherov also recorded his first hat trick on December 7, a game in which he also added a pair of assists for a single-game total of five points.
As his Rouyn-Noranda head coach would attest, that’s not a bad start for a 19-year-old kid in just his first year of hockey in North America.
“He’s a top-end player who has all the tools to really be something special and make an impact at the next level,” Huskies bench boss Andre Tourigny said. “He’s got a tremendous skill set and I would say he’s one of the top two or three players in his age group.”
Al Murray, the Lightning’s director of scouting, seemed to share that sentiment when he advised Bolts general manager Steve Yzerman to select Kucherov in the second round, 58th overall, of the 2011 NHL Entry Draft.
Already impressed with his on-ice talents, the Lightning also took a liking to the native of Maikop, Russia for his strong desire to play in North America, and more specifically, the NHL.
That, however, doesn’t come without its fair share of obstacles, especially for a teenager who has spent his entire life, both at the rink and away from it, in Europe.
For one, Kucherov doesn’t speak a lick of English, and conducts all interviews through a translator. He also spent the 2011-12 season playing for CSKA Moscow of Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League, where the game is played on a larger rink and whose style is more catered to players showcaing their offensive skills rather than backchecking.
So far the transition has been laden with challenges, but hardly any that have yet to be conquered.
“The game is faster here, the rink is smaller and there is a lot more hitting and a stronger emphasis on playing defense,” Kucherov said. “I came here to learn the NHL style. I wouldn’t have had that opportunity in Russia, and if I stayed, I wouldn’t be able to make a difference.”
All the difference, rather, at least in his game, has come as a result of his choice to leave home this year and ply his trade in the QMJHL, where he was intent on learning the North American game.
“Nikita made it evident he wanted to play in North America when we spoke to him at the NHL combine,” Murray added. “We thought it was a reasonable selection in the second round with his talent level and what we expected was a genuine interest in coming over.”
With Kucherov being released from his contract in Russia early, the Lightning prospect’s emergence in North America first hinged on somewhat of a technicality. Thanks in large part to a rule stating that Canadian junior clubs can carry no more than two European imports on the roster, with imports Nick Sorenson and fellow Russian Mikhail Grigorenko returning to the team, Kucherov proved to be the odd man out and was soon traded to Rouyn-Noranda.
Having already faced adversity by missing time because of a shoulder injury, and then being traded so early in his junior career, Kucherov has performed admirably considering the circumstances, while also managing to keep a narrow focus despite having to dodge some early distractions.
“I want to play in the NHL one day,” Kucherov added. “That is my only goal, and to learn English.”
His proficiency with language is something he’ll undoubtedly have to work on, but at least where hockey is concerned, Kucherov has no problem allowing the statistics do most of the talking for him.