Nikita Kucherov with harsh words for Lightning
Lightning star wing Nikita Kucherov is one of the league’s best sharpshooters. But Wednesday, Kucherov stunningly delivered a pointed dagger from 10,000 miles away at his Tampa Bay teammates and coaches.
Kucherov, in Russia preparing for next month’s World Championship, told Sovetsky Sport, a Russian daily sports newspaper, that some Tampa Bay players "got their money and stopped working" this season. Kucherov also lamented how often the coaching staff switched lines, wondering why he wasn’t paired often with Jonathan Drouin.
"Some guys overstayed in team," Kucherov said, according to the translated comments. "They’ve got their money and stopped working. They knew there’s no competition for their positions and the organization is not going to take someone else. They played not really well this year. You can see it in their stats and way of play. When we played together and I made a pass, they even were not expecting this. That’s why this season was hard for me despite good stats."
Kucherov didn’t name names.
Kucherov, 23, had the best season of his career, scoring 40 goals and making his first All-Star Game appearance. But the Lightning, a preseason Stanley Cup favorite, underachieved, missing the postseason. Kucherov, through agent Dan Milstein, told the Tampa Bay Times his quotes came out of frustration. Milstein said Kucherov respects general manager Steve Yzerman and coach Jon Cooper but believed not every player was "on board" with winning.
Yzerman declined to delve into Kucherov’s comments. He told the Times he had planned to meet with the wing after the World Championship and is open to getting his thoughts on everything. Yzerman said he had never heard these specific complaints from Kucherov before and he’d prefer players deal with issues internally.
"I’m not going to make a big deal out of everything," Yzerman said. "Kucherov is a great player, been a great teammate. And we’ll get things sorted out after the World Championships."
Kucherov also questioned some decisions by the coaching staff, specifically how often it changed lines once Steven Stamkos suffered what turned into a season-ending knee injury Nov. 15. Kucherov believed the first nine games of the season while on a line with Stamkos and Vladislav Namestnikov were the best of his career.
"After that coaches started shuffling lines — partners were changing like in a kaleidoscope," Kucherov said. "It was very hard to get used to it because guys didn’t play at Stamkos’ level. It’s hard to explain how I played with them. We had a lack of understanding of each other, and there were some problems. I was suffering torments all season because I couldn’t find perfect chemistry with other partners after (the) Stamkos injury. We played with Jonathan Drouin once, and it was good. But Coach didn’t put us together again, for some reason."
Cooper wasn’t available for comment. Yzerman said he has no plans to make changes to his coaching staff.
These were surprisingly candid comments from Kucherov, who was giving one-word answers to the media by the end of the season. He was in the first year of a three-year bridge deal worth $4.6 million a year signed on the eve of the regular season. He took that team-friendly deal as opposed to holding out so he wouldn’t miss a game, knowing the Lightning had Cup aspirations. So you can imagine his frustration to be in April playing for a world title as opposed to the Stanley Cup.
That’s understandable. And in a lot of ways, it’s refreshing to hear an athlete be so brutally honest. Kucherov has the clout to speak up as the team MVP this season and one of the league’s best players. Still, you can question whether it was right to air these grievances publicly now, while in Russia, as opposed to privately or publicly during or after the season in Tampa.
Milstein insisted that Kucherov, who bought a house in Tampa, wants to remain with the Lightning long term, like Yzerman did playing his whole 22-year career with the Red Wings, and the comments aren’t indicative of a bigger rift.
"He hopes to play for one team," Milstein said. "Like his GM."
Yzerman said Kucherov’s statements aren’t a concern "at this time."
But they should make for an interesting summer.