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Nikita Kucherov’s absence “not a day to day thing” as Tampa Bay Lightning hit early season injury issues







by Erik Erlendsson |  @Erik_Erlendsson |  Like us on Facebook
October 18, 2021

TAMPA – When Nikita Kucherov left the ice in the third period of Saturday’s game against the Washington Capitals, he immediately reached for the area around the inner part of his left leg.

After missing last season’s abbreviated 56-game regular season due to hip surgery, the sight of Kucherov departing the ice in discomfort left the Tampa Bay Lightning with an uncomfortable feeling. Those fears turned to reality on Monday as the Lightning returned to practice minus the former MVP and Art Ross Trophy winner on the ice.

That sight has been all too common for the defending Stanley Cup champions, who saw their depth take a hit in the offseason and are not as well equipped to deal with another long-term loss of one of the top offensive players in the game.

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On the play Kucherov was injured, there was minimal contact as he stretched his right leg back in the offensive zone near Garnet Hathaway. Kucherov immediately reached for the inner portion of his thigh around his left leg. The discomfort was noticeable as he was unable to put any weight on his right leg as he headed toward the bench, even getting a few pushes from behind by Washington players on the bench to aid his return.

After remaining hunched over on the Lightning bench for a handful of minutes, Kucherov slowly made his way back to the Tampa Bay locker room and didn’t return to the game.

Now it appears that Kucherov is going to miss significant time as sources indicated that the 2019 NHL MVP has a torn groin muscle that could result in surgery to repair the muscle. It is believed Kucherov will be seen by a specialist in St. Louis for further evaluation and determine whether or not surgery is required. 

If the injury is a groin muscle, or another in the abductor area, it might be the result of the hip surgery that kept him out of last year’s 56-game regular season or the groin pull he said he was dealing with in the 2020 playoffs.

According to PubMed, a groin injury in athletes, specifically hockey and soccer players, “have been linked to hip muscle weakness, (or) a previous injury to that area”. The standard recovery for a Grade 1 strain to the groin muscle is a minimum 2-3 weeks.

A Grade 2 strain takes 2-3 months to recover from.

A Grade 3 strain is described as “a tear that goes through most or all of the muscle or tendon. This usually causes a sudden, severe pain at the time when it happens. Using the injured muscle at all will be painful.” and “If you have a grade 3 strain, you may need surgery to repair the torn fibers, especially where the tendon is involved.”

Recover time on a Grade 3 strain is 4-plus months.

The team has not addressed Kucherov’s absence or any timetable for his return at this point.

“It’s definitely not a day-to-day thing,” Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. “So, we’ll wait until we get official word but he’s definitely going to be out for a little while here. But I’m not gonna put a timetable on it until we get the official word. In the short term here, he’s definitely out.”

Tampa Bay played all last season without Kucherov after he underwent hip surgery in late December that meant a 4-5 month recovery process. He returned for the start of the playoffs on May 16, approximately 4 1/2 months after the surgery. Kucherov went on to lead all playoff performers in scoring for the second consecutive season, helping Tampa Bay win a second consecutive Stanley Cup title.

But one of the Lightning’s strengths last season was their overall depth among the forwards. That depth took a significant hit over the offseason as Yanni Gourde, Blake Coleman, Barclay Goodrow and Tyler Johnson all departed due to salary cap constraints the team had during the summer. The Gourde-Coleman-Goodrow combination was perhaps the best “third line” in hockey and a big part of the team’s playoff success the past two seasons.

In addition, Tampa Bay was able to give a look to Alex Barre-Boulet on the top line in the final month of last season to play with Brayden Point and Ondrej Palat, giving the former AHL goal-scoring leader the chance to play in a top six role. But the roster decisions, and to some extent the salary cap, saw Tampa Bay place Barre-Boulet on waivers as opening-night rosters were set and he was claimed by the Seattle Kraken and is no longer an option.

So for the time being, the Lightning look internally to try and fill a role that can’t be filled because of what Kucherov is able to do on the ice.

The first chance to play alongside Point and Palat figures to be Corey Perry, who worked on the top line during Monday’s practice at Amalie Arena as the Lightning get set to host the Florida Panthers on Tuesday.

Perry, a former league MVP, 50-goal scorer and Rocket Richard Trophy winner as the league’s top goal scorer, signed with Tampa Bay as a free agent in the offseason to help replace some of the depth the team lost from last season. He understands how to play with top players, as he’s been one of them since entering the league with Anaheim in 2005-06.

Perry said getting an up-close view of how the Lightning’s top line plays in the Stanley Cup Final the past two seasons provides an understanding of how to play with them.

“I’ve seen firsthand how they play the last couple years and then a little bit in the first month here, so it’s just a matter of winning your battles give the puck to Pointer and let him do his thing,” Perry said.

But it will be a moving target for the time being on how the lines all break down, certainly until the extent of the injury to Kucherov is fully determined and a timetable for his return is established.

“We’re still uncertain of what’s going on with the injury (and) how long this is going to be, but in the short term, probably a little bit of an experimental stage,” Cooper said. “But we went through this for 56 games last year, and we had different guys pop in there whether it was Stammer or Cirellir or now potentially Corey Perry. So it’s something that is not ideal but we’re comfortable with because we’ve gone through it. So we’ll just see how it goes.”

The other aspect of Kucherov’s absence is his presence over on the right half-wall on the power play where he essentially serves as the quarterback on the man advantage, with most of the plays running through his spot. Now, not only do they have to replace his spot on the ice – which was taken by Ondrej Palat on Monday, as it was in the early stages of last season – but the power play will have a different feel to it as Victor Hedman likely takes those quarterbacking duties from the top of the point.

In the playoffs last season, with Kucherov back, the power play converted at a 32.4 percent, scoring 22 power play goals, 10 more than any other team in the playoffs. During the regular season, with Kucherov out, the power play finished ninth in the league at 22.1 percent. Steven Stamkos also missed the last month of the season, as well.

“He’s such a big part of that first power play,” Alex Killorn said. “But the positive is that we’ve done it before. In terms of last year what worked, what didn’t work I can’t even really remember right now. It’s so fresh what happened with Kuch, right now, but I’m sure over the next couple of games we’re going to have to make some adjustments and do some different things so ss a collective group, we’re able to to make up for his loss.”

There are layers to the absence of Kucherov that go behind how the first line works. With Perry moving up to the top line, it changes the look and complexion of the bottom two lines. On Monday, Mathieu Joseph was working with Ross Colton and Pat Maroon – a combination that worked together with success last season – with Pierre-Edouard Bellemare was between rookies Boris Katchouk and Taylor Raddysh.

Not to mention that Tampa Bay is already without defenseman Zach Bogosian, who is out 4-6 weeks after suffering an injury opening night while Cal Foote has been out since before training camp while recovering from finger surgery, though Foote could be ready to return by the end of this week at the earliest.

“It tests your depth and in a year that we lost some depth,” Cooper said. “So it’s unfortunate. Sometimes how that works, but you know it’s an opportunity for Raddysh and (Katchouk) and Footer when he gets back to show us what you can do and what’s been your lifelong dream. We’ve been happy with what they’ve done the American League and now we’ll just see if they can do it in the National League.”

The Lightning will almost certainly have to call somebody up from the minors as the injury to Kucherov leaves them with only 12 healthy forwards. The Syracuse Crunch just opened their season over the weekend, posting a 1-0-1 record on a two game stint in Cleveland. Center Jimmy Huntington notched a hat trick and had four goals to earn AHL Player of the Week honors. The third year pro centered the second line over the weekend. Another option is Simon Ryfors, who was signed as a free agent out of Sweden over the summer and led the Swedish Elite League with 25 goals last season, though the Lightning wanted to see him gain more time to adjust to the smaller ice surface in North America.



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