What would a satisfying encore to Nikita Kucherov’s Hart Trophy season look like? I don’t think the answer is as obvious as besting his 1.56 point per game mark, which would trot him past last year’s total, assuming he stays healthy. Instead, for Kucherov, after racing past his previous point total by 28 points, I think reinventing himself as the NHL’s premier goal scorer is a healthy objective that would leave him content and enrich the team. To do that, reaching and creeping over 50 goals ought to do the trick.
But as prolific a goal-scorer as Kucherov is, he shoots less than one might think. Auston Matthews played only 68 games and still managed to record four more shots than Kucherov. The easy answer to Kucherov scoring 50 goals is shooting more, and for a shooter with a 14.7 shooting percentage, he would need to record 340 shots on goal to strike 50 times. That is two more shots than Alexander Ovechkin and one less than Patrick Kane accomplished last season.
How Kucherov scores is part of this conversation. I reviewed his 41 goals from last season and noticed patterns. For someone who is looking to increase his shot total by nearly 100 shots, what strategies can the Lightning employ and what routes can Kucherov take that would put him in the best position to score as many times as possible? Here are three ways.
Resist acting as the puck-handler on entries
Only once. Nikita Kucherov scored only once when he carried the puck in on the entry, and despite facing two defensemen that time, he scored with a shot from the slot. It was October 13th against the Columbus Blue Jackets; the season had just begun. There are other instances where Kucherov carried the puck in on the entry, drove to the net, and converted with a nice deke or a backhand roof-shot—but these goals were assisted by an opponent’s turnover or a cheeky pass by a teammate.
Kucherov opportunism is not that he flies the zone or is looking for any excuse to leak out; rather, he hangs back when the puck is in the neutral zone. He looks for chaos and tries to open himself up as a target when Tampa Bay wrests control of the puck. In such sequences, the chaos of each situation means Kucherov has an unimpeded avenue toward the net. They are fueled by his foresight that the puck will change hands, and also by a scrambled defensive posture from the opposition.
In the second half of the season, Kucherov wanted to lead entries when there were two defensemen back. The problem is that this desire mostly neutralizes him as a shooting threat. This is also when the Kucherov-Brayden Point duo began to go stale. Kucherov wanted to play the role of playmaker, but Point is a reluctant shooter. In the first half of the season, Kucherov embraced the role of off-the-puck shooter, and Point was more than happy to transport the puck up the ice and slap it toward him in a scoring area.
Watching all of Kucherov’s goals in succession and making a taxonomy of his methods, I counted nearly a dozen times where he scores after someone else led the entry and fed him the puck. Watching them is instructive, because Kucherov is acquiescent to his linemates on the rush. With Point or Tyler Johnson dominating the puck and feeding him, it allowed Kucherov to beat defensemen off the puck or drop into quiet areas and wait for the pass.
Against the Nashville Predators, Kucherov beats Ryan Ellis to the inside and gets a feed by Point in the middle slot.
In this example against New Jersey, Point dumps it off to Kucherov right after he gains entry, but Point’s speed has also pushed the defense back. This allows Kucherov the time and space to rip a shot from far above the circles.
It is hard to be in the business of both logistics and manufacturing, and most importantly, Kucherov does not have to assume that burden. The Lightning have multiple, capable playmakers, and ferrying the puck up the ice quickly is a strength for their top two lines. I like this example against the Philadelphia Flyers from early in the season.
Point works with Tyler Johnson to move the puck from the inside to the perimeter. He drives back Ivan Provorov, which opens up the seam pass from Johnson to Kucherov.
The Lightning don’t have an army of shooters. Steven Stamkos can be a shooter, but at this point in his career he seems as content handling the puck and passing as he is shooting. Perhaps Johnson or Point will bury the feed on the rush, but they might do so with less frequency. Kucherov is incredibly good at catching passes and flicking them with a high velocity into corners of the net. When he dominates carrying the puck, it leads to a skill and role redundancy, and the fit can be awkward.
Yet, not all offense is generated off the rush. On the forecheck, as a way to preserve Kucherov and utilize his prowess as a sniper, I’d like to see him hang back as much as possible as the F3. While it is up for debate why Kucherov flat-lined against Columbus in the playoffs—zero goals, one suspension, two assists, and nine shots in three games—one reason may be that he was exhausted and banged up. But if Kucherov avoids the corners or the initial tussle behind the net, there is less risk for physical injury.
More importantly, by staying out of the dirty areas, Kucherov is always in scoring position, one stolen puck and pass away from hammering a shot on net, like in the clip below.
That said, in my categorizing, this was Kucherov’s only goal off the forecheck. Pairing him with Anthony Cirelli or Mathieu Joseph, someone who will force a turnover and feed him in the middle or off-slot, would be a boon for his scoring. This quality was missing from his linemates last season.
Run more set plays for Kucherov off faceoffs
Kucherov has a cannon as a one-timer, and yet the only time the Lightning flex him out like this is on the power play. Instead, to increase Kucherov’s opportunities, it would be worth having him switch with the right defenseman on offensive-zone faceoffs and let him try to swat it from the top of the right circle like he does in this instance against Montreal.
Barely three seconds have elapsed before the puck is being fished out of the net.
In this clip against Detroit, four seconds have been stolen from the play clock.
This is surely better than the banal sets the Lightning run for Kucherov at even-strength now, like when he arcs toward the middle for a long-distance lob after the defenseman tugs the winger and then kicks it back toward Kucherov. (Kucherov struck against Calgary off this set, no doubt aided by the Yanni Gourde screen.) Granted, what circle the Lightning are taking the draw from matters, but if it is the left circle, Kucherov should be isolated as a shooter for a one-timer on every opportunity.
Allow Kucherov to take the two minutes on the power play
With J.T. Miller gone, Cirelli should take the net-front role on the first power play. But the second power play unit was weak last season, and the drop-off was always dramatic after Kucherov and Co. left the ice. This season the Lightning could use the second unit to increase Kucherov's shot volume and as a lab for new ways they want to move Kucherov around the power play.
One idea is to have Kucherov switch into the bumper spot. Another is to have a puck-handler slide down the wing and have Kucherov dive to the weak side off the puck or flash to a higher area. Regardless, Kucherov should not always be inert, even though it is tempting. His one-timer is ferocious, and a permanent spot on the second unit would mean power-play time where Kucherov doesn't have to share the puck with Stamkos or Point. The Lightning would be wise to use the 82 games to determine a batch of routes he could run on the man advantage. Otherwise, a magnificent advantage the Lightning have of three great shooters spread across can become dull.
The Lightning playoff exit is something they must grapple with for the rest of the summer and into next season. That means reassessing players’—even stars’—roles. I am dubious that Kucherov takes commands from coach Jon Cooper. He is the best player on the team, and maybe in the NHL, so he plays the way he sees fit.
The reality is that the Lightning play better when they sling rubber on net. Players move their feet, deflections and rebounds occur, and it leads to an engaged forecheck and cycle. If Kucherov had his druthers, he might seek more balance. But we live in a world that doesn’t cater to personal preference. In this existence, pragmatism achieved through adaption rules the day. The Lightning will thrive if Kucherov embraces life as a gunslinger.