Breaking Kucherov’s subtle brilliance without the puck

By “give a shit” metrics, NHL players can be divided into three groups based on appearances: those who look like they’re trying, those who barely look like they’re trying, and Nikita Kucherov.

If you’ve seen the latter play for more than a few minutes, you know what I’m talking about. Kucherov’s perceived lack of interest is sometimes as undeniable as his talent. It’s par for the course to see him do an extended disappearing act, only to change the complexion or outcome of a game by pulling an absurd game out of his bag of tricks at Tampa’s convenience.

Since 2020, virtually half (44) of Kucherov’s 92 playoff points have been derived from tying, go-ahead or game-winning goals. Those 92 points represent contributions approaching half (43.2%) of his team’s total number of goals in that span.

Still, it’s easy to look at the star winger’s behavior and draw conclusions about his work ethic and level of care. But it signals an inability to recognize the site (or lack thereof, if puns are your thing) of most of his big work: his brain.

Constantly churning and processing information at a rapid pace, Kucherov’s mind is something of a wonder of the hockey world. Lightning coach Jon Cooper offered the following summary ahead of this year’s playoff night:

In addition to Cooper’s perspective, we see the seminal plays Kucherov makes with possession, but what we often miss are the sneaky smart moves that precede — and ultimately set the stage for — those plays.

Simply put, we miss how elite he is at creating advantages for his team before he even touches the puck.

If you look at Kucherov – and I mean really look at him – it’s like he’s playing poker on the ice. He has mastered the art of bluffing and knows how to manipulate the positioning of opponents in a way that suits him.

To understand exactly how his mind works, we’ll run through three subtle pre-possession plays from the No. 86 that were instrumental in developing key Lightning goals this post-season. While the technique of deception deployed on each varies, they are all rooted in proactive problem solving.

Each clip shows the given climax twice, first in full, then with markers to help break down what’s going on.

Let’s dig.

Game 3 v Rangers: assist on the winning goal

Background: Tampa trails 2-0 in series, tie with less than a minute to play.

Fall into the bluff: defender Ryan Lindgren (No. 55).

Kucherov begins this sequence by entering the zone and kicking the puck. As he returns to the point, he knows that Ryan Lindgren is following him and begins to move in the middle of the ice while reading the play.

To make sense of what unfolds next, we need to recognize the following: Kucherov’s game is all about playing to his strengths and getting into positions that allow him to make the most of his skills. When his team has possession, this approach results in finding weak spots where he can receive the puck in dangerous parts of the offensive zone and do damage immediately. Thus, his fundamental game plan is to find ways to create separation with opponents rather than position himself with them.

Unbeknownst to Lindgren, Kucherov has little to no intention of heading to the net and fighting for space on this play despite his body language suggesting otherwise. Waiting for the defender to look over his shoulder and bite on the sell, Kucherov slyly cuts into the slot as soon as he sees Lindgren turn his back on him. This play perfectly encapsulates a tactic highlighted by former Maple Leafs analyst Jack Han:

In response to seeing Kucherov insufficiently covered in prime ice now with the puck (I’ll take “no fun” for $100, please), Mika Zibanejad (#93) pulls out of position and loses his man – the goalscorer – on this play.

With just one move off the puck, Kucherov turns a seemingly relatively innocuous possession into a high-percentage threat that causes a coverage breakdown, resulting in the game winner. Voila, the power to outsmart your opponent.

Game 2 against the Panthers: assist on the winning goal

Background: Tampa leads 1-0 in series, draw with less than 30 seconds left.

Fall into the bluff: defenders MacKenzie Weegar (#52) and Gustav Forsling (#42).

You knew this was coming. This game is downright silly and there’s a lot more to unpack beyond what’s initially obvious – AKA that sweet, sweet pass.

The clip begins with Kucherov attempting to drive the puck deep, which his teammate succeeds seconds later. As he walks towards the end panels, he peers over both shoulders and formulates a plan based on the information gathered. He sees Ross Colton (#79) as his only immediate passing option and a good one at that, given where he is. He also sees that MacKenzie Weegar is the only Panthers player within reach of Colton. Therefore, he focuses on baiting Weegar away from Colton, while simultaneously keeping Gustav Forsling (to his right) out of the equation.

The way he does this is twofold. First, watch how he sells two different stories at the same time with his body as he crosses the goal line. With hands folded and shoulders in line with the puck, his top half sells a forehand catch followed by a cutback or stop at the near post. Translation: Forsling’s responsibility. Hips and toes pointed in the opposite direction, his lower half selling a route to the far post. Translation: Weegar’s responsibility. Things unsurprisingly go south in a hurry from here.

Remember how we talked about Kucherov’s nonchalant behavior earlier? It’s actually one of his strongest deception tools and it’s the second factor in how he draws both defenders, and Weegar in particular, to this play.

The 29-year-old is exceptional at tricking opponents into underestimating him by presenting himself as a non-threat as the puck approaches. Between the leisurely pace at which he operates and the seemingly defenseless positions he puts himself in, he regularly tricks his opponents into thinking they have him in the palm of their hand. The result ? Either they engage too much in a zealous attempt to kill a game early, or they engage in a passive move driven by a false sense of security. Weegar is a victim of the first. He sees a player on his backhand sliding towards the puck with his back turned – harmless and vulnerable – and the green light is instinctively activated.

Defensive zone failure orchestrated by Kucherov: 2. Opposing teams avoiding last minute defeats: 0.

While all of these off-puck body language cues may seem minor, they heavily influence the decisions of those on the ice and have a major impact. Kucherov is a pro at evaluating how to play his hand to trigger the desired response.

Game 3 vs. Rangers: power play goal

Background: Tampa trails 2-0 in the series, losing 2-0 in the second period.

Falling into a bluff: goalkeeper Igor Shesterkin.

To fully appreciate this game, we need to start with a 5-on-3 Lightning power play early in the period. Thereupon, Kucherov tries two point passes on the ice from the right circle. The first is off target but still leaves a goal opportunity for a teammate and the second is deflected:

Fast forward five minutes to another Tampa Bay power play and Kucherov’s goal:

Once again in his office in the right circle, Kucherov tries another single slap – wait, what is he doing?

Choose any part of the body in the first close-up freeze frame – toes, shoulders, chest, hips – and you’re good to go. All are square in the middle of the ice, as is his stick blade in the frame that follows.

The information we can gather from what happens next sets this piece apart. Showing a pass and shooting is one thing. Showing a pass in a premeditated attempt to exploit a particular spot on a goaltender before the puck arrives is quite another.

Kucherov knows he can create an opening under Shesterkin’s left pad if he can convince the keeper to fall for his bluff. Without stressing too much about the mechanics of the goalie, when Shesterkin slides to his left while following the puck from point to circle, his left pad should be flush with the ice. Anticipating a pass from Kucherov down the middle and eager to get in early, he begins to charge his left leg in preparation for a push to his right, lifting his pad in the process. By the time his “uh oh” moment occurs, he can’t correct his course quickly enough to make up for his preemptive decision (and boy does this lopsided attempt seem awkward). The No. 86 places the puck exactly as expected.

Whether it’s priming the New York goaltender during the 5-on-3 or tricking him more in real time, Kucherov scripts this scene before the puck even hits his blade. A Hart Trophy finalist rarely fooled in this way, Shesterkin’s disbelief is evident.

To recap the three goals: Kucherov’s brain, man. While they may not be as flashy as the ones he concocts with the puck, the subtle plays he makes before are just as impressive and meaningful. None of these goals will be achieved without them.

Few players have the ability to control the game without controlling the puck. Planning your next move is hard enough, but planning your next move and your opponent’s next move is the next level.

The little advantages Kucherov creates for his team from one quarter to the next add up to big moments, and big moments add up to Stanley Cups. With a hat-trick on the line, Tampa Bay is counting on its star to put all its chips on the table.

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