Deception key to Nikita Kucherov's hot start
The slick, sling-shot type wrist shot Nikita Kucherov used for his first goal Monday night may have stunned many at Little Caesar's Arena.
But Kucherov, 24, has practiced it countless times. There were his 5-to-6 day a week individual workouts this summer at Brandon's Ice Sports Forum, starting in late June. Then the 40-goal scorer, never satisfied, would come home and shoot some more, thanks to the synthetic ice sheet he installed in his two-car garage.
"Just something different," Kucherov said.
It's sparked something special. Kucherov has become one of just four players in the last 30 years to score a goal in each of his first six games. The others include Hall of Famers like Steve Yzerman and Mario Lemieux. Not too shabby.
Kucherov has scored in a variety of ways in his record run, seven goals overall. He's incorporated a lost art — the backhand shot — which the Lightning wing had used for two highlight-reel goals last week.
"Not a lot of guys have the confidence to try it," Lightning associate coach Rick Bowness said. "A lot of guys don't have the skill level. But (Kucherov) does."
It’s not by accident. Deception is a big part of Kucherov’s game. The element of surprise is what makes the backhand so difficult to stop. Kucherov noted it has worked for Penguins star Sidney Crosby, who has the best backhand (34 such goals since 2009-10), and Chicago’s Patrick Kane (33). Boston’s Brad Marchand has the most backhand goals since 2009-10 (44), according to STATS. Kucherov's two last week matched his total from all of last season.
"Especially in this league, you have to be unpredictable," Kucherov said. "It's a tough league, you have to make chances out of nothing. Look at those guys, Kane, Crosby, watch them and it's a huge part of their game. It's something I want to add to my game and be better at."
What makes Kucherov's backhand so impressive is how he does it with such a big curve on his blade, Crosby's stick is more straight. Kucherov has little margin for error. "He's got complete control of that weapon on his hands," said Fox Sports Sun color analyst Brian Engblom.
If you watch the film, both of Kucherov's backhand goals last week were different. On Monday against the Capitals, Kucherov received a touch pass from Alex Killorn in the neutral zone and gathered a ton of speed. Coach Jon Cooper points out Kucherov's ability to change speeds - especially east to west - is among the best in the league. You see it as Kucherov makes an inside-and-out move on Capitals defenseman Taylor Chorney, but somehow was able to get the puck on the heel of his stick, enough to lift it over goalie Philipp Grubauer's shoulder.
Blues goalie Jake Allen must have watched that highlight. When Kucherov came in on Saturday's backhand goal, you can see Allen shift to his left to anticipate that same shot from Monday.
"I kind of knew what (Allen) was thinking," Kucherov said. "There was a little trip, I was falling. That's what would be on my mind if I was a goalie, that's what I would do, probably take short side. I got lucky, got really good wood on it and went far side."
It’s more than luck, it is elite hockey IQ. Kucherov said from an early age, his old Russian coach, Gennadiy Kurdin, drilled into him the importance of playing without the puck, about getting open and giving linemates options. Ask many opposing NHL coaches on Kucherov and they’ll tell you he has a knack for “getting lost” in the offensive zone, sneakily finding “quiet areas.”
That’s why Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill says Kucherov is so tough to defend. If a player is fast, you can try different things. But Blashill said Kucherov’s deception “is one of the best, if not the best, in the league.”
“You just think where the puck is going to go, think three seconds ahead of what will happen,” Kucherov said. “If this guy has his back to you, what can you do?”
It’s a reason Kucherov and captain Steven Stamkos have such great chemistry. Both share similar instincts. Stamkos said he learned from former Lightning star Marty St. Louis that “your play away from the puck is just as important as when you have it.”
And when Kucherov has the puck, his best asset is his shot, coach Jon Cooper said. You can see Kucherov working on it after every practice, using several angles, all over the ice, after many teammates have already headed to the dressing room.
“He scored 30, then he got 40,” Cooper said. “He said, 'Well, I want to get 50.’ You like the hunger in that.”
Kucherov said he’d like to think those hours of practice, including killing time in his two-car garage, paid off with Monday’s wicked wrist shot. It was one of two styles of wrist shots for Kucherov, the other a quicker snap.
“Not too many guys can shoot it like that,” Stamkos said. “I don’t even think I have that in my repertoire. It surprised everyone.”
Vintage Kucherov: deception by design.