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NHL’s best players under age 25 for 2017: Nikita Kucherov and his impressive resume rank No. 3

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Kucherov has put together three straight 60-plus point seasons as one of the league’s top scorers.

Tampa Bay Lightning v Pittsburgh Penguins - Game Five Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Note: This is SB Nation NHL’s top 25 players under age 25 series! We’ll be covering each player from No. 25 to No. 1 over the next few weeks leading up to training camp time. See the complete list and information on how the rankings were compiled.

Nikita Kucherov has come a long way from scoring his first goal on the first shot of his first NHL shift. That came all the way back in 2013, when Kucherov had yet to take the NHL by storm as a constant threat of a winger for the Tampa Bay Lightning.

It’s been a steady climb for Kucherov as one of the NHL’s top pure scoring wingers in the game. Kucherov was taken as the 58th overall pick in the 2011 NHL draft by the Lightning, and since he has built upon each of his subsequent seasons with an offensively dominant Lightning team.

After his rookie year in 2013, Kucherov has put in three consistent 60-plus point seasons, including an 85-point campaign last year in 74 games. Over those last three seasons, Kucherov has ranked in the top 10 forwards in the NHL in points, and his 40 goals last year were second only to Sidney Crosby. Even missing star center Steven Stamkos, Kucherov had a career year across the board to lead the Lightning in goals and points.

On top of being a stud offensive talent, Kucherov can also drive possession at even strength with a career CF% above 55, according to Hockey-Reference. Given the extent of his goal-scoring and playmaking abilities, Kucherov could very well get away with being break even at possession and still be a fine young hockey player. Instead, Kucherov is not only capable of putting up big numbers, he’s also quite responsible with the puck on his stick.

Though he hasn’t stayed completely healthy over his last few seasons, Kucherov was on a 94-point pace last year had he not been derailed by a lower-body injury. Not many NHL players hit the 100-point mark in this day and age, but given Tampa Bay’s talented forward group, Kucherov could very well crest that mark within the next few years. Not only that, Kucherov is headed into the prime of his career as one of the league’s top scoring wingers. Expect him to continue to climb the scoring charts and make waves across the league as his career progresses.

Past accomplishments

Kucherov was selected in the late second round of the 2011 draft by the Lightning, and it was only after being drafted by Tampa Bay that he got to play on North American ice. Previously, Kucherov spent time playing professionally in the KHL and MHL in Russia under the CSKA Moscow organization.

Upon arriving in North America, Kucherov played in the QMJHL to adjust to the new style of play. He amassed a total of 63 points in 33 games played for both the Quebec Remparts and the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies across just one season.

Kucherov made his NHL debut for the Lightning in November of the 2013-14 season, and in total he put up just 18 points in 52 games for Tampa Bay. It wasn’t until his sophomore year that Kucherov broke out, as he put together a 65-point campaign in a full 82-game season as the Lightning’s third-best scorer. The trend continued in 2015-16 where despite playing five less games, Kucherov put up 66 points and had his first 30-goal season.

He was finally rewarded for his good work last season, where Kucherov was selected to the NHL All-Star Game. Kucherov’s 40 goals last year also put him in incredible company, as he joined the short list of Russian hockey players who put up a 40-goal season at age 23 or younger. That list includes: Evgeni Malkin, Pavel Bure, Alex Ovechkin, Ilya Kovalchuk, and Alexander Mogilny.

Kucherov also has to his name two World Junior medals — a sliver and bronze — and a third place finish in the World Championships from his time with Team Russia.

Future impact

With Kucherov leading a young Lightning core of Tyler Johnson, Brayden Point, Vladislav Namestnikov, and Ondrej Palat, it’s hard not to project Tampa Bay as being one of the top offensive teams in the NHL for years to come. And that’s not even factoring in 27-year-old Stamkos and his return to the team after yet another injury.

It is possible, however, that Kucherov takes a slight dip in scoring, since his shooting percentage crested 16 last season. Overall through his career, Kucherov’s averaged a 14.4 shooting percentage on the higher end of the NHL averages. It’s not that much of a concern, as Kucherov has steadily increased his average shots per game to 3.32 last season and was one of the NHL’s top 20 forwards in terms of overall shots on the year. Still, Kucherov will keep that number just as high if he wants to remain one of the NHL’s consistent top scorers.

Last season, Kucherov averaged 19:26 minutes per night as Tampa Bay’s top line right winger, according to Hockey-Reference. It’s likely he’ll see the same amount of time at even strength given his role on the team’s top line, an idea that should give Lightning fans a lot to be excited about after missing the playoffs last year.

Is this ranking too high or too low?

Looking over the competition, it’s quite easy to say that Kucherov is the most established young forward so far on this list at age 24. Players like Patrik Laine, Jack Eichel, and Leon Draisaitl are not far behind Kucherov, and they one day could even surpass him given what we’ve seen so far in their young careers, but Kucherov’s resume clearly speaks for itself.

It’s no secret as to who the final two players on this list are going to be, and sitting Kucherov behind the consensus top young players in the NHL is a testament to what he’s built so far in his NHL career.

Highest rank: No. 2
Lowest rank: Not ranked