The 2016-17 campaign wasn’t kind to the Tampa Bay Lightning, serving up a season-ending injury to captain Steven Stamkos just 17 games into the year and bringing the team’s conference finals streak to an abrupt end.
Just one month into 2017-18, the club is already erasing all memory of that subpar season, with Stamkos and linemate Nikita Kucherov lighting up the rest of the league on a nightly basis. Through 13 games, Stamkos leads all NHL skaters with 24 points to his name, while Kucherov similarly sits atop the pile with 13 goals.
Lightning fans won’t have to reach too far back to bring to mind the last dominant duo to wear Tampa Bay’s colours, as it was just three years ago that Stamkos was doing damage alongside former captain Martin St. Louis.
With the present captain’s new linemate emerging as a bona fide superstar in his own right, Stamkos didn’t hesitate to draw the comparison others likely had in mind.
“Kuch is a guy who reminds me the most of having that natural chemistry like I did with Marty,” Stamkos said to ESPN’s Greg Wyshynski on Wednesday. “It was funny: I was the young kid, and Marty was the veteran guy, and we pushed each other. Marty taught me so much with his experience in the league, and I was able to push him with my youthfulness, you could say.
“Kuch and I aren’t too far apart in age, as Marty and I were, but I feel the same way with Kuch. How he’s always working on his game, and how I have to keep up with him. It’s been extremely fun so far.”
However, while the volume of points amassed by the pair certainly calls for the comparison to Tampa Bay’s previous top-line duo, the script seems to be flipped this time around, as Stamkos has moved from sniper to setup man.
“When I played with Marty, for as long as I was, he was the guy that told me to get him the puck and get open,” Stamkos told the Tampa Bay Times recently. “I didn’t necessarily have to be put in an area to try to make plays. I was trying to get open and shoot the puck every time I could. But, now, I’ll try to get Kuch the shots right now because he’s the best in the league at it at this moment. So why wouldn’t you want to get him the puck?”
Fair point, and one the 24-year-old Russian phenom likely isn’t arguing. After breaking out with a 40-goal performance last season, Kucherov has seen his offensive ceiling rise even further with Stamkos by his side.
That may be partly by design, as the young sniper said he paid close attention to Stamkos’ tendencies during that impressive stretch alongside St. Louis.
“I always looked up to them,” Kucherov said. “And (saw) how they supported each other, how they talked, how they moved the puck, where Marty was getting open.” St. Louis led the Lightning in scoring during Kucherov’s rookie season, posting 61 points through 62 games before moving on to the New York Rangers.
But for all the influence Kucherov’s two veteran teammates had on him, the Russian phenom is now doing his part to drive Stamkos, the latter forward said.
“I was pushing Marty, and Kuch is truly pushing me,” Stamkos told the Times. “To see him work as hard as he does at his game, I want to be right there with him.”