Wednesday, August 15, 2012

One To Watch: Tampa Bay Lightning

It's been fun to watch the evolution of the Lighting over the last few years. The addition of Steve Yzerman brought a certain level of confidence that had been missing. From the outside looking in it seems like there is a new personnel, new uniforms and a new attitude.   

I've liked Al Murray for a long time and think he's an excellent scout. Coincidentally, I live in a small town outside of Edmonton of less than 10,000 people and so does another member of the Tampa scouting staff who I run into from time to time. I've come to have a bit of a soft spot for the club and appreciate the turnaround that's occured. 

As for the prospects in the system, or "The Pipeline" as the team calls it on their website (I approve of the free publicity for my show, btw), there is lots to like. 

One of the first things I see when I look at the list is a large number of Europeans; I may be wrong but I get the sense that the Blots have more than most NHL clubs. If I'm not wrong in saying that then the question is why? There is a general hesitancy in drafting them because it can be tough to bring them over. Perhaps the thought is that the old real estate adage works for European hockey prospects too; location, location, location. That Florida sunshine must be pretty attractive.

Vlad Namestnikov, Nikita Gusev, Radko Gudas and Andrei Vasilevskiy are some of the more recognizable names with Euro passports.

Not that there aren't homegrown talents in the system as well. Dustin Tokarski had a sniff in the NHL last year. Slater Koekkoek and Dylan Blujus are recent additions on the back end. Tyler Johnson had a great year in the AHL as a rookie. 

The player I chose for this series doesn't hail from North America although he may play here this coming season and how that came to be is a story within itself.         

Photo: IIHF Images

Nikita Kucherov (RW)

Quebec Remparts
5'11, 171 lbs
Drafted 58th Overall in 2011

99% of what I know about Kucherov is what I have been told. I don't know if I have ever seen him play a game but I have talked to many scouts who have and it sure sounds like fun. 

Kucherov burst onto the scene in 2010 at the World Junior A Challenge where he had 7 points in 4 games for Russia. Back home he piled up 58 points in 41 games and then ended the year with an astonishing 21 points in 7 games during the World U18 Championship in Germany. One huge footnote from that event is that he lead all players in scoring including two teammates named Mikhail Grigorenko and Nail Yakupov. 

Tampa drafted Kucherov in the 2nd round that June.

Photo: Andy Devlin
This past year he scored 43 points in 23 regular season games and also played for Russia in the 2012 WJC in Calgary adding 7 points in as many contests. 

Patrick Roy and the Quebec Remparts selected Kucherov in the CHL Import Draft at the end of June. That seemed odd to me as surely the high-scoring forward could get a more lucrative KHL contract should he not be able to play professional in either the NHL or AHL for Tampa.

In July I spoke with Kathleen Lavoie, beat writer from Le Soleil in Quebec City, about the potential that Kucherov would ever play in the QMJHL.  During our conversation she explained how the Remparts adding Kucherov was not a wild stab in the dark and in fact, was started by Michail Grigorenko. 
"The two boys [Grigorenko and Kucherov] were together playing in the CHL Subway Series in the two games here in Quebec," Lavoie Said, "Patrick Roy was coaching the [QMJHL] team and when they were in Victoriaville training, both guys came to see [Roy] and Mikhail introduced Nikita to Patrick."

"As a joke, Patrick said to Nikita: 'What would it take for you to come to Quebec and play with us?' and the young man just told Mikhail to tell Patrick 'Just come and get me', so it started there." Lavoie continued.
That may be the easiest negotiation ever! There was some paperwork that needed to be done to make him available to come over but the last I heard, that process had at least begun.

Kucherov in a Remparts uniform would definitely ease their loss of Grigorenko to the Buffalo Sabres and I'm sure the Lighting would appreciate him being much closer to them as well. Would a year in the QMJHL be better for his development than a season in the KHL, assuming that was an option? Debatable either way but a year to acclimate to North America before joining the Lightning can't be a bad thing.  

As a player, I don't know much about Kucherov outside of his stats line which look very impressive. How will he adapt to playing in Quebec? Will his offence come with him to the QMJHL? Were his previous numbers skewed because of the league that he played in? 

Solid question which hopefully get answered this year which is why I have chosen Nikita Kucherov as "One to Watch" in 2012-13.      

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