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In Light Of A Frustrating Season, Kucherov’s Comments Are A Wake-Up Call

Hearing a hockey player dish out truthful comments simply doesn’t happen very often.

I’m not saying that hockey players are dishonest. But let’s be real. Most of them aren’t going to give you many memorable comments. There’s typically a lot of cliches involved when talking with hockey players, or most pro athletes for that matter. With social media and how quickly sound bites and interviews go viral, most athletes rarely make controversial remarks.

This is why Tampa Bay Lightning winger Nikita Kucherov’s comments earlier this week caught everyone off guard. Looking back at the Lightning’s disappointing season, it should serve as a wake-up call for the organization. It also places more pressure on Kucherov going forward.

On Wednesday, the Bolts’ star winger fired long-distance shots at both the coaching staff and his teammates, none of whom he mentioned by name. During an interview with Sovietsky Sport translated from Russian, Kucherov went off.

While in Russia preparing for next month’s IIHF World Championships, Kucherov talked about how teammates quit putting in the work after getting paid and lamented the coaching staff’s constant line shuffling.

“Some guys overstayed in team,” Kucherov said, according to the translated remarks. “They’ve got their money and stopped working. They knew there’s no competition for their positions and the organization is not going to take someone else. They played not really well this year. You can see it in their stats and way of play. When we played together and I made a pass, they even were not expecting this. That’s why this season was hard for me despite good stats.”

Kucherov continued by praising injured captain Steven Stamkos and the on-ice chemistry they had along with Vlad Namestnikov. He also expressed frustration with the fact he and Jonathan Drouin weren’t kept together despite the fact they also had chemistry together.

“After that coaches started shuffling lines — partners were changing like in a kaleidoscope,” Kucherov said. “It was very hard to get used to it because guys didn’t play at Stamkos’ level. It’s hard to explain how I played with them. We had a lack of understanding of each other, and there were some problems. I was suffering torments all season because I couldn’t find perfect chemistry with other partners after (the) Stamkos injury. We played with Jonathan Drouin once, and it was good. But Coach didn’t put us together again, for some reason.”

The entire translated interview can be read courtesy of Alessandro Seren Rosso of The Hockey Writers.

Soon after Kucherov’s comments went public, his agent, Dan Milstein, elaborated on them.

Speaking to Joe Smith of the Tampa Bay Times, Milstein stated that Kucherov’s comments came out of frustration. He also added that his client respects the coaching staff and general manager Steve Yzerman, but didn’t believe everyone on the team was “on board” with winning games.

Kucherov is coming off a season in which he set career highs in goals (40), assists (45), and points (85). You could make a strong case that he was the team’s MVP this season, with defenseman Victor Hedman the only other player in the running for that honor. The 23-year-old winger signed a three-year bridge deal worth $4.6 million a season before the season started in order to avoid a lengthy holdout, knowing that the Lightning entered the season as strong Stanley Cup contenders. He has every right to be frustrated that he’s spending the month of May playing in the World Championships instead of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

When you think of Nikita Kucherov, you don’t typically think of a guy that will give you a fancy quote. In my time covering the team, he’s never been a guy that enjoys talking to the media, coming across as soft-spoken and giving short answers during media scrums. Reading his remarks on Wednesday was jarring. However, talking to a reporter that speaks his language in his home country probably put him in a comfort zone where he felt like he could speak his mind.

It’s a nice change of pace to hear a hockey player speak his mind and be bluntly honest with his opinion.

Players like Kucherov, who carried the Lightning on his back for the last few months of the season, have the clout to make statements like that. The only problem I have with Kucherov’s remarks are that they happened across the world a month after the Lightning’s season ended rather than during the season or immediately after the season finale. While a case can be made that his comments and grievances should’ve been kept in-house, was he wrong to state his mind?

I don’t think so. Remember, this is a team that rightfully entered this season with Stanley Cup-or-bust expectations. Sure, they dealt with injuries, but everyone deals with injuries. The Lightning played uninspired, lackluster hockey over the first half of the season, and it wasn’t until they fell to last place in the Eastern Conference in early February that they turned things around. Their push over the final two months of the season was impressive, but it was too little, too late.

Kucherov’s comments were merely an expression of the frustration that comes with falling far short of high expectations. They should serve as a stark reminder for this organization that you have to bring your best effort night in and night out. Perhaps it’s something that could’ve been handled in-house, but Kucherov’s interview is a reminder that this season wasn’t good enough. It should serve as a wake-up call for the Tampa Bay Lightning. As for whether or not Kucherov’s remarks were going to be a problem, Yzerman doesn’t seem to think so.

If there’s one thing that’s certain, it’s definitely not going to be a boring offseason at 401 Channelside Drive.

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