Best in Round is a ten part series. For each installment, I’ll be going through a specific round of the draft for the Tampa Bay Lightning and selecting the best player the team selected in that round. The player didn’t need to play for the Lightning or play significant time with the Lightning to qualify. Only that they were drafted by the Lightning. The rest of the selection criteria is purely subjective based on my own opinions. Some opinions may also be based on future speculation for players that have not finished their career or are just starting.
When you’re drafting in the second round of the draft, you expect to find NHL contributors and maybe every once in a while you get a player that slips out of the first round because of some questions weather size, character, or something else. The Lightning have had some interesting second round selections in the past four drafts with Libor Hajek, Boris Katchouk, and Adam Erne who were all considered by some to be first round talents. You also have Mitchell Stephens, Matt Spencer, and Dominik Masin that have some promise.
But going back through the Lightning’s 2nd round picks they’ve only had one player break the 200 game mark. There have also been a handful of players that have hit the 100 game mark. That group consists of the enigmatic Richard Panik who is 19 games from breaking 200 games. There’s also Dana Tyrell who seems to be out of professional hockey altogether after 121 NHL games due to multiple knee injuries that sapped him of some of his speed. Defenseman Matt Smaby had 122 games over 4 seasons. Sheldon Keefe had 125 games over 3 seasons. There was also Drew Bannister with 164 games played and was drafted in the Lightning’s first draft in 1992. Sprinkle in a couple other players with less than a full season worth of NHL games and a goalie with 30 appearances and you have the Lightning’s second round picks.
So who is that one player that has broken 200 games? That would be one Nikita Kucherov.
Playing for CSKA Moscow’s MHL team, it was clear that Kucherov had a significant amount of offensive talent. By the way, while you’re watching the above highlights, you’ll also see another Lightning prospect, Nikita Gusev, #97 who currently plays for SKA St. Petersburg in the KHL.
After being drafted, Kucherov spent another season in Russia split between CSKA Moscow in the KHL and Krasnaya Armiya Moscow in the MHL. He suffered a shoulder injury and missed time during the year. After a bit of a dispute with CSKA over the medical expenses of his shoulder injury, Kucherov decided to leave Russia and come to North America.
For the 2012-13 season, Kucherov began the season with the Quebec Remparts of the QMJHL under coach Patrick Roy. However, due to the NHL lockout, the Remparts found themselves with four import players on their roster. CHL teams can only play three imports in a game and Kucherov was often on the outside looking in even though he had 10 points in 6 games. Kucherov was traded to the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies where he had 53 points in 27 games, including 26 goals.
In the CHL, it became obvious that Kucherov was a possession driver. He was as capable of setting up his teammates for goals as he was at putting the puck in the back of the net. He made his North America professional debut with the Syracuse Crunch during the 2013-14 season and soon saw himself in Tampa after scoring 23 points in 17 games with the Crunch.
His transition to the NHL went a bit slowly though. He was mostly paired up with center Nate Thompson and right winger J.T. Brown on a speedy, but offensively limited third line. On his first shift, in his first NHL game, on his first shot on goal, he put the puck past Henrik Lundqvist to join a small club of players to do that. I should also note that Rick Peckham accidentally called him Dimitri as Dimitri Korobov was also making his NHL debut in the same game.
He would only manage 18 points in 52 games. However, he consistently drove possession with that line being above 50% in Corsi. He started to learn the defensive side of the game with that line and was challenged by Jon Cooper in the summer to round out his game and become a more complete player.
Kucherov broke out the following season when he was paired with Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat, a line that was dubbed the Triplets. Shortly after that joining, he had his first career hat trick and took off after that. He’s had consecutive seasons now putting up 65 and 66 points and 29 and 30 goals while being a defensively responsible forward.
He’s still got a lot of career ahead of him at only 23 years old, but he’s already cemented himself as the Lightning’s best ever 2nd round selection.