First thing’s first: Lightning winger Nikita Kucherov is an elite hockey player.
The 28-year-old has dominated the opposition over the course of his eight NHL seasons; he has been instrumental in Tampa Bay’s back-to-back Stanley Cup championships, and he has won a Hart Trophy (as the league’s most valuable player), an Art Ross Trophy (as the game’s top point-getter), and a Ted Lindsay Award (as the NHL’s most outstanding player, as voted by players).
But he has suffered some serious injuries of late – most notably, hip woes that required surgery and sidelined him for the entire 2020-21 campaign. Kucherov returned to action in time for the 2021 playoffs, and again was first-rate, leading the league in playoff points (for the second time) with 32 in 23 games.
So, it’s clear to everyone the Lightning are going to miss Kucherov after he suffered a lower-body injury that may require surgery. Bolts coach Jon Cooper said Kucherov’s injury was “not a day-to-day thing,” bracing Lightning fans for bad news regarding Kucherov’s short-term status. They’re obviously not as good a team with Kucherov out of the lineup, and team management is probably praying he’ll be back sooner than later.
But here’s the thing: the Lightning demonstrated last season that they could win games without Kucherov playing for them. Tampa Bay finished third in the Central Division in 2020-21, but they won as many games as the first-place Carolina Hurricanes – 36 victories; Carolina earned first place because they generated eight overtime losses, while Tampa had only three OT losses.
Despite losing a number of veteran players this past summer because of the salary cap, the Lightning remain one of the most talented groups in the league. They still have captain Steven Stamkos, first-line center Brayden Point, wingers Alex Killorn and Ondrej Palat, a deep and talented defense corps that includes Victor Hedman, Ryan McDonagh and Mikhail Sergachev, and one of the best goaltenders on the planet in Andrei Vasilevskiy. This is a core of talent almost any NHL General Manager would dropkick his most beloved relative to have on their side.
The Lightning also have an elite coach in Cooper, a savvy GM in Julien BriseBois, and an owner in Jeffrey Vinik who is willing to spend to the cap ceiling and beyond in the case of injuries. Some believe the Bolts engaged in violation of the cap last season when Kucherov remained out of the lineup and waited until the post-season arrived to play again. But the NHL did not agree, and allowed Kucherov to return in the playoffs, and he made Tampa Bay even more dangerous.
It’s not clear how long Kucherov will be unavailable to the Lightning, but whenever he is able to play again, he’s going to boost his team to higher heights. Yet, in the reformed Atlantic Division, Tampa Bay remains the odds-on favorite to win the division and be a frontrunner for their third consecutive NHL championship. They’ll still have every opportunity to win games against any opponent. Their third and fourth lines may be different, but the grand majority of their key components remain intact.
Tampa’s immediate schedule has them taking on impressive teams including the Florida Panthers, Colorado Avalanche, and the Pittsburgh Penguins. However, it also includes skill-challenged squads including the Buffalo Sabres and Arizona Coyotes. It’s highly likely the Lightning will feast on the weak teams, and put up serious fights against the Panthers, Avs and Pens. It would be ideal for them to stay as healthy as possible, but even if they deal with more injuries, they’ll still be in a position to succeed.
So don’t fret, Lightning fans – BriseBois has built an amazing group that can take a blow or two and continue being a force to reckon with. Whenever Kucherov returns, they’ll obviously be better, but the current roster won’t let anybody down. They’re a collective leviathan that is intent on cementing their status as a dynasty, and they won’t be deterred by health issues. They are that good.