For Nikita Kucherov, hockey has developed into a lucrative living, but perhaps after his career as a wing for the Tampa Bay Lightning comes to a close, he may try his hand as a magician or a hypnotist.
First the goalie sees the puck, then it vanishes, only to reappear in the back of the net. The shot? There was none. Kucherov simply let go of the puck and let it slip between the goalie’s legs.
“He’s very unpredictable, what he’s going to do with the puck,” said Washington Capitals wing Alex Ovechkin, who, like Kucherov, is an explosive Russian goal scorer. “That’s what makes him so dangerous.”
Ovechkin was on hand when Kucherov, 24, broke out the move on Ovechkin’s teammate Braden Holtby at this year’s All-Star tournament, during which Kucherov posted a hat trick. Ovechkin also had a front-row seat for a repeat performance, when Kucherov scored against Holtby on a breakaway that sealed a victory less than a month later.
Kucherov has the audacity and the ability to pull off moves few other players would dare to attempt.
He has scored 79 goals in the past two seasons, finishing just behind Winnipeg’s Patrik Laine, who has 80 over that span. His career-high 100 points this regular season trailed only Edmonton’s Connor McDavid and Philadelphia’s Claude Giroux.
And the Lightning recovered from a disappointing, injury-filled 2016-17 season to lead the NHL’s Eastern Conference with 113 points. With two goals and two assists from Kucherov, Tampa Bay leads its first-round playoff series against the Devils, 2-0. Game 3 is Monday in Newark, New Jersey.
Unlike many magicians, Kucherov has no problem with revealing his secrets.
“When you pull it back on your forehand, you kind of make a move like you’re shooting,” he said. “When you pull it back, the goalie’s already on his knees, and when you go around him, that makes him think you’re going to your backhand. While they’re pushing from their left leg to their right, they open up space between the stick and the left pad.”
If he deals in the unexpected now, it may be because as a slight but well-coordinated youth player, being elusive and inventive were matters of survival. Even today, his measurements listed in programs — 6 feet tall, 185 pounds — seem generous.
Kucherov’s work ethic and physical fluidity run in the family. His father and grandfather were talented on the soccer field and had long careers in the Russian military. His mother, Svetlana, was a gymnast with professional aspirations before sustaining an injury. In difficult economic times, she cleaned the local rink to buy her son secondhand skates and Soviet-era equipment.
Kucherov’s NHL success was unexpected. He said his sights were on playing in Russian’s top pro league, the Kontinental Hockey League. Despite a meteoric rise in his draft year that culminated in setting a tournament record for pointsin the under-18 world championships, he fell to the bottom of the second round in 2011.
After injuries to both shoulders and a falling-out with his Russian club, CSKA Moscow, over who would pay for a surgery, Kucherov voided the final three years of his contract and came to North America at 19. The Lightning and general manager Steve Yzerman stepped in and attended to Kucherov’s needs.
“He probably saw what kind of player I was going to be,” Kucherov said of Yzerman. “He trusted me. He’s done a great job and he’s just a great person. He’s a smart guy and he used to be a smart player. He treats players, even at a young age, as if they have an opportunity to be a good player in the NHL.”
Kucherov played part of the 2012-13 season in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, where he learned English and adapted to the North American ice surface. He made his NHL debut in November 2013, scoring on New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist the first time he touched the puck.
The Hall of Famer Pavel Bure said he could see Kucherov taking his place in the pantheon of productive Russian wings, which includes players like himself, his former teammate Alexander Mogilny and Ovechkin.
“He’s like us already,” Bure said. “It’s up to him how long he can last. He has a lot of years in front of him to prove some things. But he’s already a 40-goal scorer and he’s a young guy.”
Bure added that he would like to see Kucherov hit the 50-goal mark.
Kucherov unveiled his signature move, which he adapted from the Russian player Sergei Shirokov, during a shootout last season against the Buffalo Sabres, part of a second half that vaulted him into the NHL’s elite. He scored 21 goals after the All-Star break, the most in the league, during a push to get the battered Lightning into the playoffs. They fell short, which frustrated Kucherov to the point of voicing his dismay publicly.
But this season, Tampa Bay had fewer injuries and even more production from Kucherov, who had 39 goals and 61 assists. He wanted to play with center Steven Stamkos, as he did last season before Stamkos’ season-ending injury, and the two responded with the most productive 10-game stretch to start an NHL season in more than two decades. They combined for 14 goals and 23 assists, and the Lightning won eight of those games.
Stamkos and Kucherov finished the year with the second-most points of any tandem, with 186; they were edged by a point by Philadelphia’s Claude Giroux and Jake Voracek in the final game of the season.
Stamkos, who works closely with Kucherov and shares a private skills coach, the Hall of Fame center Adam Oates, said even he was occasionally surprised by Kucherov’s inventiveness.
“Kuch is, without question, one of the most talented players in the league and one of the most talented players I’ve ever had a chance to play with,” said Stamkos, who adjusted his game to let Kucherov shoot the puck more. “The feeling is mutual with me wanting to play on the same line as him.”
Lightning coach Jon Cooper said Kucherov stood out as a committed worker, even among other professionals, pointing to his offseason work in Florida with personal coaches.
“If you’ve ever been here in July, it’s really hot, you’ve got to be inside a lot,” Cooper said. “A lot of players aren’t here in July and August, but one guy was, it was Kuch.”
Kucherov played down his coach’s praise: “I bought a house, that’s the reason why I stayed. If I didn’t buy a house, I’d probably leave.”
Yet inside that house, Kucherov laid down synthetic ice to convert his two-car garage into a miniature practice facility where he worked multiple times daily on his accuracy, angles and other components of shooting.
“It just goes to show that there’s really no boundaries for him wanting to improve his game,” Stamkos said.
Kucherov’s youth coach Gennadiy Kurdin taught him a philosophy of hockey that saw shooting as an extension of the passing game. It was an unselfish style that valued movement of both the puck and one’s body over a more straight-ahead approach. An astute child, Kucherov spoke little but absorbed a great deal. In recent years, he has not been shy about expressing his opinions about how his team plays, whom he plays with and other big-picture decisions.
“When he was a child, he preferred to listen; now he has changed,” Kurdin said through an interpreter. “He became more communicative even though he is still a good listener and observer. He is demanding on the ice. I would say that is probably my influence.”
Kucherov rewarded that influence after signing his current contract in 2016, a three-year deal worth less than $5 million per season, which makes his MVP-caliber performances the past two seasons among the best values in the NHL.
He kept a promise, ostensibly made in jest, to Kurdin.
“We used to spend a lot of time in traffic jams and one day, when he was 7 or 8 years old, I saw him concentrating with a sad look on his face and I said, ‘When you reach the NHL and get rich, you will buy me a new car,'” Kurdin said. “It was just a joke to change his mood, put a smile on his face.”
After Kucherov signed his contract, Kurdin’s phone rang. It was Kucherov’s mother.
She said, “Choose your car.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.