Breaking down Kucherov’s subtle brilliance without the puck

Based on measures of “importance,” NHL players can be roughly divided into three groups based on appearances: those who seem to be trying, those who barely seem to be trying, and Nikita Kucherov.

If you’ve watched the latter play for more than a few minutes, you know what I’m talking about. Kucherov’s seeming lack of interest is sometimes as undeniable as his ability. It’s normal to see him pull off a prolonged disappearing act, only to change the look or outcome of a game by pulling an absurd play from his bag of tricks at Tampa’s convenience.

Since 2020, virtually half (44) of Kucherov’s 92 playoff points have come from goals to tie, advance, or win the game. Those 92 points equate to contributions approaching half (43.2 percent) of his team’s total goals in that span.

However, it is easy to observe the behavior of the star winger and jump to conclusions about his work ethic and level of attention. But doing so indicates a failure to recognize the site (or lack thereof, if puns are your thing) of most of his heavy lifting: his brain.

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

Beyond Cooper’s point, we see Kucherov’s standout plays with possession, but what we often miss are the clever, sneaky moves that precede, and ultimately set the table for, those plays.

Long story short, we miss how elite he is creating leads 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 position of opponents in the way that suits him best.

To understand exactly how his mind works, we’ll look at three subtle pre-possession plays on No. 86 that were instrumental in developing the Lightning’s key goals this postseason. While the deception technique implemented in each varies, they are all rooted in proactive problem solving.

Each clip shows the given highlight twice, first in full and then with marks to help break down what’s happening.

Let’s delve into.

Game 3 vs. Rangers – assist on the winning goal

Context: Tampa trails 2-0 in the series, tied with less than a minute remaining.

Falling for the deception: defenseman Ryan Lindgren (No. 55).

Kucherov begins this sequence by entering the zone and kicking the puck wide. When he gets back on point, he knows that Ryan Lindgren is following him and starts moving toward the center of the ice as he reads the play.

To make sense of what unfolds next, we need to acknowledge the following: Kucherov’s game is all about playing to his strengths and putting himself in positions to take advantage of his skill set most effectively. When his team has possession, this approach translates to looking for weak spots where he can receive the puck in dangerous parts of the offensive zone and immediately deal damage. Therefore, his fundamental game plan is to find ways to create separation from opponents rather than compete for position 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. Expecting the defender to look over his shoulder and bite into the window, Kucherov cunningly cuts the slot as soon as he sees Lindgren’s back turned. This play perfectly encapsulates a tactic highlighted by former Maple Leafs analyst Jack Han:

In response to seeing Kucherov insufficiently iced first-class now with the puck (I’ll take “no fun” for $100, please), Mika Zibanejad (No. 93) steps out of position and loses his man: striker – In this play.

With a single move off the puck, Kucherov transforms a relatively innocuous-looking possession into a high-percentage threat that causes a break in coverage, culminating in the game-winner. Voila, the power to outwit your opponent.

Game 2 vs. Panthers: assist on game-winner

Context: Tampa leads 1-0 in the series, ties the game with less than 30 seconds left.

Falling for the deception: defensemen MacKenzie Weegar (No. 52) and Gustav Forsling (No. 42).

You knew it was coming. This play is downright silly and there’s a lot more to unpack beyond what initially meets the eye, aka that sweet, sweet pass.

The clip begins with Kucherov attempting to throw the puck deep, which his teammate successfully accomplishes seconds later. As he heads toward the end boards, he looks over both shoulders and formulates a plan based on the information gathered. He sees Ross Colton (No. 79) as his only immediate passing option and a good one given his location. He also sees that MacKenzie Weegar is the only Panthers player within Colton’s reach. Thus, his focus shifts to getting Weegar away from Colton, while simultaneously keeping Gustav Forsling (to the right of him) out of the equation.

The way he does it is twofold. First, he watches as he sells two different stories at once with his body as he crosses the goal line. With his hands tucked in and his shoulders in line with the puck, the top half of him sells a right catch followed by a cut or near-post stop. Translation: Forsling responsibility. His hips and toes point in the opposite direction, the bottom half of him selling a route to the far post. Translation: Weegar responsibility. Unsurprisingly, things go south in a hurry from here.

Remember how we mentioned Kucherov’s nonchalant behavior earlier? In fact, it serves as one of his most powerful deception tools and is the second factor in how he lures both defenders, and especially Weegar, into this play.

The 29-year-old is exceptional at tricking opponents into underestimating him by presenting himself as a threat as the puck approaches. Between the leisurely pace at which he operates and the seemingly helpless positions he places himself in, he routinely makes opponents believe they have him in the palm of their hand. The result? They either over-commit in a zealous attempt to kill a play early or under-commit in a passive move fueled by a false sense of security. Weegar is a victim of the first. He spots a backhand player sliding toward the puck on his back, harmless. Y vulnerable, and the green light activates instinctively.

Kucherov-orchestrated defensive zone breakdowns: 2. Opposing teams avoiding last-minute losses: 0.

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

Game 3 vs. Rangers: Power Play Goal

Context: Tampa is down 2-0 in the series, down 2-0 in the second quarter.

Falling for the deception: goalkeeper Igor Shesterkin.

To appreciate this play in its entirety, we need to start with a Lightning 5v3 power play early in the period. In it, Kucherov attempts two passes in one shot across the ice from the right circle. The first goes off target but still gives rise to a scoring chance for a teammate and the second is off target:

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

Back in his office in the correct circle, Kucherov attempts another slap to – wait, he does what?

Pick any body part in the first close-up freeze frame (toes, shoulders, chest, hips) and yell pass. They are all square in the middle of the ice, just like your club blade in the frame below.

The information we can collect from what happens next sets this play apart. Showing the pass and shooting is one thing. Show passing in a premeditated attempt to exploit a particular spot on a goalkeeper before the puck arrives is another.

Kucherov knows he can engineer an opening under Shesterkin’s left bag if he can convince the netminder to fall for his bluff. Without worrying too much about goalie mechanics, when Shesterkin slides to his left as he tracks the puck from point to circle, his left pad should be flush against the ice. Anticipating a pass from Kucherov up the middle and eager to get there early, he begins charging his left leg in preparation for a push to the right from him, lifting his bag in the process. By the time his “uh-oh” moment occurs, he can’t correct course fast enough to offset his preemptive decision (and boy does that lopsided attempt look awkward). Number 86 places the puck exactly as intended.

From setting up the New York keeper during the 5v3 to tricking him further in real time, Kucherov scripts this scene before the puck hits his blade. A Hart Trophy finalist who is rarely duped in this way, Shesterkin’s disbelief is evident.

To sum up the three targets: Kucherov’s brain, man. While they may not be as flashy as the ones he makes up with the puck, the subtle plays he makes beforehand are just as impressive and meaningful. None of these goals happen without them.

Not many players have the ability to control the game without controlling the puck. It’s hard enough planning your next move, but planning your next move Y your opponent’s next move is the next level.

The little leads Kucherov creates for his team from turn to turn add up to big moments, and big moments add up to Stanley Cups. With a treble at stake, Tampa Bay has its star to put all its chips on the table.

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