'No mercy': How the Lightning's Nikita Kucherov transformed into a champion, a franchise leader and an icon (2024)

The sun was starting to rise, but those at the afterparty outside Steven Stamkos’ Davis Islands home on July 7 weren’t ready to shut down.

Especially not Nikita Kucherov.

Kucherov, 28, was a few hours removed from his epic, Bud Light-fueled press conference, which will make the phrase “No. 1 Bullsh*t” live forever in Tampa Bay Lightning lore. He was on top of the world, a back-to-back Stanley Cup champion. And, despite playing through a cracked rib, Kucherov appeared to be feeling no pain.


The Stanley Cup was in the backyard of Stamkos’ 8,500-square-foot house, which has a pool and a dock overlooking the bay. The team had been there since leaving the champagne-soaked Amalie Arena dressing room shortly after 3 a.m. At around 6 a.m., Kucherov was talking with defenseman Luke Schenn and Stamkos’ father, Chris. They asked him about what he was thinking during the press conference.

“No mercy,” he replied.

The players were exhausted, with several having dealt with serious injuries. Victor Hedman’s torn meniscus. Ryan McDonagh’s broken hand. Alex Killorn’s broken leg. Kucherov’s cracked rib. Schenn figured Kucherov might be ready to rest, with training camp just a couple of months away.

“You going back to Russia?” Schenn asked.

“No, I’m staying here,” Kucherov said.

“To hang out?” Schenn said.

“No,” Kucherov said. “I start skating in two weeks.”

Schenn was stunned. It had only been six hours since they’d become the second team in a quarter-century to win back-to-back championships. But Kucherov wasn’t satisfied.

“I think I can be better,” Kucherov said. “I need to be able to dominate more.”

Schenn brought up the fact Kucherov led the playoffs with 32 points — after missing the entire regular season due to hip surgery. It’s something that had rarely been done before. Still, Kucherov felt he had to take over games more consistently. He had to lead the way.

“I’m like, ‘Wow,” Schenn said. “That’s why he’s the best.”

Kucherov is one of the best players in the world, a two-time Stanley Cup champion with a growing brand. He’s a key reason Tampa Bay has a chance for a historic three-peat this season, which opens Tuesday against the Pittsburgh Penguins. But it wasn’t that long ago, just two years, when the entire narrative surrounding Kucherov, and the Lightning, was different. Like Kucherov, his team was loaded with skill, but some questioned the players’ will, especially after a humbling first-round sweep handed to them by the Blue Jackets in April 2019.


The transformation of the Lightning, according to general manager Julien BriseBois, started with the transformation of Kucherov. There are no boat parades, no Stanley Cup, no “No. 1 bullsh*t” shirts had Kucherov not evolved as a player and leader. He had to adjust to a bit of a safer style, becoming the surprising face of the team’s “process over outcome” mantra. He had to open up off the ice, too, learning from another Russian star in Alex Ovechkin.

There were some low points, from the suspension/sweep to a benching, a tug of war with the coaching staff. But the lasting image for some teammates is how Kucherov played through pain, including a groin injury in the 2020 playoffs and, in July’s Cup Final, a cracked rib that required multiple injections. His legacy has been forged by clutch play, including leading the league in playoff scoring the past two years. “It’s not even just an elite player,” coach Jon Cooper said. “He’s an elite winner.”

And leader.

“What you want is for the trajectory of your career to keep going up,” Stamkos, the Lightning’s captain, said. “Even when you’re at the top, you want to find a way to improve. That’s Kuch, always working on his craft. The last couple years, everyone, the whole team had to buy into really what we wanted to accomplish, which is the Stanley Cup. Collectively, we have to have everyone buy in, starting with a guy like that. You see him doing the right things, everyone just follows. When your best, most talented player, is doing those things, it’s usually a good recipe.”

The Lightning dressing room at Nationwide Arena was like a morgue when Kucherov shuffled to his locker stall on arguably one of the worst nights in franchise history.

It was April 7, 2019, and the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Tampa Bay team had just got stunningly swept by the Blue Jackets. The same group that tied the 1995 Red Wings for most regular-season wins in history (62) barely lasted a week in the playoffs. Most players sat quietly, shell-shocked as they took off their gear for the final time. They were embarrassed. Ticked off.


“It sucks,” Kucherov said, his head down. “I guess it wasn’t our time.”

There were many reasons for the series sweep, but the fact that Kucherov — the league’s Hart Trophy winner — got suspended for a must-win Game 3 made him the fitting face for the team’s frustrating failure. Kucherov said his emotions got the better of him when he boarded a defenseless Markus Nutivaara at the end of Game 2. “It was stupid,” he said.

The anguish over watching his team lose Game 3 while in street clothes hit Kucherov hard.

“It was crushing,” Cooper said.

Kucherov didn’t have many faults. His work ethic is legendary. His hockey IQ is off the charts. But Kucherov would sometimes let his frustration show in his body language. Teammates didn’t take it as Kucherov being selfish, or unable to handle physicality. “It happened because he cared,” former Lightning wing Ryan Callahan said. “He had to learn how to reel in that raw emotion, how to control it and channel it.”

The Lightning also needed Kucherov to lead, especially by example. They knew they had to play better defensively and not be so cavalier offensively — it could no longer be the “greatest show on ice.” And Kucherov, as talented as any forward in the league, would often try to carry the puck all the time instead of making the safe play.

There were hard conversations during exit meetings, with players and staff having to look in the mirror. There had to be questions about whether the Lightning could win with this core, and with Kucherov as their best player.

“Kuch is such an important part of the foundation of our team,” Cooper said. “The conversations are never, ‘Can we win with this guy? It’s, ‘How are we going to win with this guy?’ We felt that he had it in him to be that leader and player he could become. It took time for everyone to mature. I matured as a coach. But as we’ve grown together, understood each other, we all have the same common goal. When you have that, that’s when great things happen.

“We don’t have two Stanley Cups without Nikita Kucherov being Nikita Kucherov. It shows, in my opinion, he’s arguably the best player in the world.”

Teammates say the Lightning’s early exit in 2019 turned into a watershed moment for Kucherov. Kucherov was invited to play for Russia at the World Championships in Slovakia. There, Kucherov was surrounded by some of his idols, including Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin (both Cup champions) and Ilya Kovalchuk.


Though Kucherov had played with Ovechkin in the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, he got a more in-depth understanding of the future Hall of Famer’s presence and how it has a trickle-down effect in the room. I remember asking Kucherov at the 2019 NHL Awards about what he learned.

“He’s an unbelievable teammate,” Kucherov said. “He does everything for the team, cares about the team so much. That’s what I see the most about him. Obviously, he’s a great player. But, to me, I see him differently, spending more time with him. Really impressed.

“He’s really friendly, supports everybody. He’s a great role model for kids, myself, guys that do well in the league. He’s the guy that did it for a long time. To spend some time with him means a lot. It’s something that I’m going to take into my game.”

Kucherov talked about how the Russian vets brought the team together, how they did everything possible to do so. “I’ll remember that World Championship for a long time. I’ll tell my kids about it,” he said. Being the MVP of the league, one of the best players in the world, wasn’t enough. It’s the consistency when it matters most. Everything would be empty without the Cup.

“If I’m going to bring my ‘A’ game every night, we have a good chance to win,” Kucherov told me at the awards. “I want to think about that. I want to help the team first. I have to take the lead.”

Teammates say Kucherov is a really funny guy behind the scenes, but he’ll only really let loose — such as with the “No.1 bullsh*t” rant — a couple of times a year. But Lightning defenseman Mikhail Sergachev saw a different Kucherov after that world championship experience with Ovechkin, and it particularly was evident during the team’s galvanizing trip to Sweden in November 2019 for the Global Series. When they all went out as a group, Kucherov was not only there, he was in the “middle of everything,” Schenn said. He was engaging. He was loud.

They got to understand him better. And vice versa.


“Ovi is a glue guy in getting guys together, always worrying about teammates, where they are, what they’re doing,” Sergachev said. “He always wants guys together. And Kuch is the same now. He learned that. Everyone is looking up to Kuch now. He’s a leader. Probably the best player on our team, him and (Vasilevskiy). He learned that he can’t only be good on the ice, but off the ice, you should be the guy. He’s right there now, and is a glue guy.

“He really grew up, I can say that.”

A month after the Sweden trip, Kucherov faced another turning point.

The Lightning were tied with Ottawa in a mid-December game that they absolutely had to have. They had struggled out of the gate and had just a 16-12-3 record at that time.

But for most of the third period and the entire overtime, Kucherov didn’t see the ice. He played just two shifts after a costly turnover at the Senators blue line led to a tying goal midway through the second. There was another play in which Kucherov appeared to dip out early on a play in the defensive zone.

Cooper has preached “process over outcome” the past several years, and it certainly felt like he was sending a message to the group about the way they want — and need — to play. To Kucherov’s credit, when the coaches met with him afterward to go over clips, there was no attitude or complaints or sulking, according to assistant Derek Lalonde.

Teammates said Kucherov addressed the benching with the group, but mostly let his play do the talking.

“I remember it being a big deal, and people were talking about it around the league,” Schenn said. “I thought, ‘This can go one of two ways.’ Either he goes one way, or he’s all-in. And he totally took it the way which championship teams are made of. He’s a superstar on the team and he’s all-in and he recognized and took it as a learning experience. There was no looking back.


“I remember the practice afterward, it was next level. He found another gear. He knew, all of a sudden, ‘Guys are watching, paying attention to what I was doing.’ I’m sure he realized that before, but not to that level, ‘People are watching me.’ It was definitely eye-opening. He started doing all of the things the right way, and everyone followed.”

'No mercy': How the Lightning's Nikita Kucherov transformed into a champion, a franchise leader and an icon (2)

Nikita Kucherov. (Kim Klement / USA Today)

Callahan said Cooper should get credit for how he handled the “tug of war” with Kucherov, talking about the delicate balance of trying to take risk out of the star’s game while also giving him the leash to use his creativity. The coaching staff at one point showed Kucherov clips of his body language, asking him to improve that. When Kucherov does something, everyone is watching. When he talks, everyone listens.

So when teammates heard Kucherov being more vocal on the bench during the 2020 first-round series against Columbus, imploring guys to “get the puck deep” and “manage the game,” it was a significant moment. Kucherov walked the walk, too, getting trusted to play important minutes late in the game while protecting a lead. When Lightning coaches show clips of winning 50/50 battles, Kucherov is all over them. He played hurt, too, suffering a groin injury in Game 1 against the Blue Jackets and playing through it the rest of the way. Kucherov and fellow star Brayden Point were literally game-time decisions every game for the rest of the playoffs.

“You see people where that light bulb switches on, where team success is more important than individual success,” Lalonde said.

After the Lightning exorcized their demons in beating Columbus in five games in August 2020, Lalonde and the coaching staff went around the visitor’s dressing room at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto and shook each player’s hand. Players were at their stalls, elated, but still in their gear. Lalonde, who runs the penalty kill, was giving everyone hugs and high-fives.

Kucherov was the last guy. He pulled Lalonde in from their hug and said, “PK needs to be better next series.”

Lalonde laughs now, though joked he wanted to choke Kucherov then. But fellow assistant Jeff Halpern explained to him right after, “Kuch just wants to win.” When the Lightning won Game 6 against Dallas in the Stanley Cup Final, finally winning that elusive Cup, Kucherov approached Lalonde on the ice amid the celebration. He gave Lalonde a hug and said: “See, you take care of the PK. I take care of the power play. We’re Cup champs.”

When Kucherov brought the Cup back to Moscow in early September, it brought back a ton of memories.

There was plenty of partying, of course, with Kucherov, Sergachev and Vasilevskiy getting on stage with a popular talk show host — akin to Russia’s Jimmy Fallon. They sang, they danced. But Sergachev was also struck by Kucherov’s humble roots.


“It’s not like anything was given to him,” Sergachev said. “He took it for himself.”

Kucherov’s favorite part was sharing the Cup with his family, including not only his wife, Anastasia, and 3-year-old son, Max, but his mother, Svetlana, and father, Igor. It was Svetlana who got a cleaning job at the rink to purchase Kucherov his first pair of used skates. They were three sizes too big, so Kucherov wore three pairs of socks to help them fit.

His parents took him to his first NHL game, the Capitals-Rangers playoff series in 2013. They got nosebleed seats, “the last row,” Kucherov recalled, and he was struck by the pace, the intensity, the skill, especially Ovechkin. “I’m like, ‘Holy sh*t, it’s hard,’” Kucherov said. “That’s the first thing that popped into my head. Like, that’s the best players. I thought I worked hard, then to see all those guys so much better. I’ve got work to do to one day be here.”

Kucherov was driven by doubters. He was motivated by the fact he was a second-round pick in 2011 (58th overall). He was a healthy scratch and was traded in his first year in juniors in Quebec, but his Rouyn-Noranda (QMJHL) coach Andre Tourigny predicted the prospect would be “dominant.” Tourigny told then-assistant GM Julien BriseBois after Kucherov’s first year, “He’s for sure one of the top three players in his age group in the world.”

“Really, you think?” BriseBois asked.

“Guaranteed,” Tourigny replied.

Kucherov made the transition to North America like his idols, “The Russian Five.” There was a photo of the legendary Red Wings players on the wall of his childhood home, and he’d often watching clips of them on YouTube to derive inspiration. Every time he looked at that picture, or heard people talk about them, Kucherov wanted to be like them. He’d go to sleep thinking about it.

“Maybe one day you’ll be in their spot,” Kucherov said. “Maybe, you’ll be on the wall of some kid.”

.@86Kucherov grew up with a “Russian Five” poster on his wall. Now the legends are staring back. With Kucherov setting Russian record for points in season, we spoke w/ idols Fedorov, Larionov, Datsyuk, Ovi, Malkin on #tblightning star’s remarkable journey https://t.co/XTlIqzQRy9 pic.twitter.com/6RZhlMS1SN

— Joe Smith (@JoeSmithTB) April 7, 2019

There’s no doubt that there are kids in his home country with a poster of Kucherov, or who own his No. 86 jersey. And Kucherov’s “Russian Five” heroes are now marveling at his run, including a Russian-record 128 points in 2018-19. The night the Lightning won their second Cup, Kucherov called Igor Larionov, who was at dinner with his son. “You’re my idol,” Kucherov told the Hall of Famer. “Thank you.”


Kucherov’s booze-fueled rant about Vasilevskiy being the MVP to Canadiens fans and more went viral. The “No. 1 bullsh*t” shirts, featuring a shirtless Kucherov drinking a beer, have flown off the shelves. That night, however, offered a rare glimpse into his sense of humor, his personality. Sergachev said he woke up the next day and watched it six times. “It’s probably the greatest press conference of all time,” Sergachev said. “I was laughing, but at the same time, it was kind of true. It came from the heart. Some people got mad at him, but he was saying what he was thinking. We need more players to do the same, and not just say, ‘Get pucks deep.’ Just say what you’re thinking.”

Nikita Kucherov not holding back in his post-game. Legendary press conference. pic.twitter.com/6hA9KvpgPE

— Brady Trettenero (@BradyTrett) July 8, 2021

Schenn was in the weight room at Amalie Arena when he saw Kucherov on TV in the press conference. The veteran defenseman was with Stamkos and McDonagh, and he told them, ‘Oh my God, check out Kuch.” “I’m like, ‘How do I get to Kuch’s level right now?” Later during that night’s celebration, Kucherov sought out Schenn’s brother, Brayden, a Blues forward. Brayden Schenn had taken a run at Kucherov during a game the previous year. Kucherov told him he wanted a photo of the two together, with the Lightning winger faking like he was punching Brayden in the face. Kucherov smiled: “I got you back now.”

Kucherov’s buzz didn’t wear off right away, either.

Two nights later, the Lightning were at a team dinner at Eddie V’s Steakhouse in Tampa. It was the players and their wives, who were all dressed up for the celebration. There was Kucherov grabbing the mic, cracking jokes. He had picked up where he left off in the press conference. He was hugging everyone like they were his best friend. Singing. Dancing. “The whole room was in tears, crying,” Schenn said.

So towards the end, Schenn went up to Kucherov.

“Hey Kuch, why don’t you pick up the tab for the boys?”

Schenn was clearly joking — that’d be one humongous bill.

Kucherov looked at him and smiled, “Great idea. Love it. Whatever it takes!”

(Top photo: Nathan Ray Seebeck / USA Today)

'No mercy': How the Lightning's Nikita Kucherov transformed into a champion, a franchise leader and an icon (2024)
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