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Can the Lightning Repeat Without Nikita Kucherov?

Nikita Kucherov is injured.  The Tampa Bay Lightning announced this week that Nikita Kucherov will miss the entire upcoming regular season. Kucherov will undergo hip surgery this week that will sideline him indefinitely. How will this effect the team’s chances in defense of their Stanley Cup?

Last season’s Lightning team showed they could win the Stanley Cup without their Captain, Steven Stamkos in the playoffs. There were players who stepped up in the postseason to make up for the void created by Stamkos’ absence. 

It’s one thing for a team to circle the wagons for a couple of playoff months. It is vastly different for a team to replace a former Hart Trophy winner for a whole season. Even if that season is truncated to only 56 games. 

The Kucherovian hole in the lineup will give some players the opportunity to rise to the challenge. For the last four seasons Kucherov averaged 38 goals and 100 points. Even pro-rating for 56 games, his absence means a loss of 26 goals and 68 points.

Who Will Rise Up?

Naturally when a team loses a player the caliber of Kucherov, it’s a hardship for the entire team. We can assume players like Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman, and Brayden Point will step up. But those three alone won’t fill the skates of Kucherov. If the Lightning are to successfully defend their Stanley Cup, a lot of players need to rise up. We can definitely count on Anthony Cirelli and Mikhail Sergachev for increased production in the offensive zone. It generally happens after signing a new deal. 

Steady performers like Ondrej Palat and Yanni Gourde have elevated their games in the past. A whole full season for Gourde with his linemates, Barclay Goodrow and Blake Coleman can be exciting to witness. Even the fourth liners like Cedric Pacquette and Patrick Maroon are capable of upping their offensive game.  The hole left in the lineup with Kucherov’s injury will mean opportunities for some of the younger players on the roster.

Alexander Volkov has shown some scoring skills in two seasons with the Syracuse Crunch.  Netting 23 goals in each of his two seasons with the organization’s AHL affiliate, Volkov has the chops to add some offense. Another younger player who may get an opportunity to show what he has is Mitchell Stephens.  While not having Volkov level AHL goal production, Stephens averaged 15 goals in two Crunch seasons.

The Roster Without Nikita Kucherov

Before a complete pre-season analysis about the team can be done, Lightning General Manager, Julien Brisebois still has cap issues. 

Putting Kucherov on Long Term Injured Reserve moves his $9.5 million cap hit off the books.  Once he comes off LTIR, his cap amount comes with him, so clearly, Brisebois has moves to make. Though right now, the team is over the cap by about $2.2 million. This means the GM has work to do and he’s running out of time to do so. Per NHL rules, every team must be cap compliant before the season officially begins. 

We know Brisebois tried his damnedest to make some moves after the Cup win to alleviate the cap crunch without success. Most trade rumors centered on Tyler Johnson and Alex Killorn.  Johnson’s no trade clause and Killorn’s modified no movement clause tied the GM’s hands a bit. The fact that the other 30 teams in the league who didn’t win the Cup weren’t so ready, willing and able to help the reigning champs was expected. However, it shouldn’t come to anyone’s surprise if one or both of those veteran players is dealt before the season starts on January 13th. 

Once Brisebois gets the team under the cap, Jon Cooper and the coaching staff have a good chance to repeat. Sure, the Kucherov injury drastically changes the odds of repeating. Then again, how many naysayers thought the Lightning would win the Cup without their captain?

It’s a Team Game

I know some in this town are ready to throw in the repeat towel. While the towel is still in your hands think about this: Last season the Lightning averaged 3.47 goals per game. If Kucherov missed the whole season last year, the team would have still averaged 3.0 goals per game.  This is assuming nobody makes up even one missing Kucherov goal. 

In this beautiful team game, the other side of the coin is defense. Keep this in mind, the team gave up 2.77 goals per game last year. Even if Kucherov’s offensive production isn’t replaced, how the team steps up defensively can equally shape the season success. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that the Lightning defense step up. The 2.77 goals against last season was good enough for seventh best in the league. 

They have the best defenseman on the planet in Victor Hedman. Ryan McDonagh would be the best defenseman on the majority of NHL teams. Braydon Coburn is a savvy veteran who could provide quality minutes. The new contracts for Sergachev, Jan Rutta, and Erik Cernak should provide the proper incentive for improvement.  There is every reason believe that Cal Foote gets a chance to crack the lineup. There is no reason to believe this defense can’t improve upon last year.

Victory Road

Any team that loses a player the caliber of Kucherov is going to feel those effects. One of the league’s elite players isn’t going to be replaced by the next man stepping up. Hockey is a team game, that’s the beauty of it for the Lightning. Nothing will show that more to Lightning fans than how the team responds to the absence of Kucherov.  It won’t be with one or two players. 

Many teams in the NHL wouldn’t be able to withstand the loss of a superstar. The Lightning are not in that club. They showed they could win a Cup without their captain.  What this roster did in the Bubble Playoffs was remarkable, They, as a team, upped their overall game. On offense, on defense and on special teams. They did enough to win as many games as it took to give Stamkos a chance to play in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup. Sure, Stamkos ultimately only played about a minute and a half of the Cup Final but those 90 seconds have now become hockey lore. 

I believe they will have enough to win their division.  They will show the league and the hockey world that they can repeat without their superstar player, Nikita Kucherov.

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