As part of Tampa Bay's deadly "Triplets" line with Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat, right winger Nikita Kucherov has enjoyed a breakout season. But some pretty impressive perseverance went into making the young Russian the player he is today, one capable of fooling Henrik Lundqvist on this game-winning shot:
Kucherov already has two overtime goals in these playoffs and is tied for second in NHL scoring this post-season with seven goals and 16 points through 16 games. Not bad for a player who had a less-than-ideal introduction to North America.
Selected by the QMJHL's Quebec Remparts in the 2012 Import Draft, Kucherov was a highly-touted talent who had helped Russia earn silver at the world juniors earlier in the year. He was already a Tampa Bay prospect at the time and would be joining an elite Remparts squad that autumn coached by Patrick Roy and featuring Anthony Duclair and Adam Erne, not to mention fellow Russian Mikhail Grigorenko.
But CHL teams are only allowed to dress two imports per game and along with Grigorenko, the Remparts already had Nick Sorensen, an Anaheim prospect who had clicked on a line with Erne. So Kucherov was often the odd-man out – not a fun situation for a skilled player who left the comfy confines of home to play on the other side of the world.
Kucherov got into just six games for the Remparts (scoring 10 points) and was eventually traded to Rouyn-Noranda, a great hockey market, but very remote – the copper mining outpost of 41,000 people is one of the northern-most QMJHL locales and is closer to Ontario than it is to many Quebec towns. Plus, he didn't have Grigorenko, who had already played a full season over here, to help him acclimate to the new culture anymore.
Nonetheless, Kucherov hooked up with the Huskies and was excellent, scoring nearly two points per game and helping Rouyn-Noranda reach the semifinal before falling to Nathan MacKinnon's Halifax Mooseheads. Deliciously, Kucherov and the Huskies beat Quebec in the quarterfinal. The skilled left winger ended his playoff run with 24 points in 14 games, ranking him second on the squad behind Montreal prospect Sven Andrighetto.
After splitting last season between Tampa and AHL Syracuse, Kucherov found himself on the fast track with Johnson and Palat this year and ended up as one of the Lightning's top scorers. And given the way he has performed in the post-season, this may just be the beginning of a fantastic NHL career.