Training camp for the Tampa Bay Lightning is about to get underway, but there’s uncertainty about whether or not the pre-season skates will include Nikita Kucherov, a restricted free agent who remains without a contract with less than three weeks remaining until the start of the season.
Asked Thursday about the status of Kucherov’s contract, Lightning GM Steve Yzerman sounded hopeful about the state of contract talks. According to NHL.com, Yzerman said the Lightning and Kucherov’s camp remain in “constant contact,” and the hope is that a contract will be in the offing.
"Obviously we want him here," Yzerman said, according to NHL.com. "He's a tremendous player, he's a popular player on the team. Being young he is still one of the leaders on our team so we want to get him in here as soon as possible. It takes time. Does it become a distraction? I don't anticipate that. Again our goal is to have him signed and in here as soon as possible.”
The goal, Yzerman said, is to have Kucherov inked by the time he’s done at the World Cup with Team Russia. Though it’s unlikely Kucherov signs on the dotted line before Saturday’s semi-final game — the 23-year-old almost certainly has his focus solely on the matchup against Canada — there will be time post-tournament when Kucherov could be inked by the Lightning and then join the team in camp ahead of the start of the pre-season.
The most difficult thing for the Lightning, and what has likely remained the sticking point throughout contract talks, is the money for Kucherov. He gets the minutes, the role and the opportunity to be a star in Tampa Bay, but he no doubt wants to be paid as such, and rightfully so.
Over the past two seasons, Kucherov has 59 goals and 131 points in 159 games, and only Steven Stamkos, with 79 goals and 136 points, has found the score sheet more often over the same span. Stamkos inked an eight-year, $68-million deal in June to remain with the Lightning, and Kucherov could be looking to earn similar money to the $8.5 million Stamkos earns annually.
However, the Lightning probably don’t see Kucherov’s salary climbing much higher than that of Vladimir Tarasenko, who signed an eight-year, $60-million deal — $7.5 million annually — in July 2015 to remain with the St. Louis Blues. Tarasenko has scored 77 goals and 147 points over the past two seasons, and before signing his deal has posted 58 goals and 116 points in 141 games, which is a near-identical points per game pace as Kucherov.
The issue for the Lightning right now is that, according to CapFriendly, they have only $6.27 million in available salary cap space, and their cap issues go beyond this coming season. Come next off-season, the Lightning will be staring down big money extensions for RFAs Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Jonathan Drouin. That’s an issue because Tampa Bay currently has less than $18 million in salary cap space to work with come next off-season, and the cap space will be significantly lessened once Kucherov is locked up.
Signing Kucherov is crucial for Yzerman and the Lightning, though, and they appear willing to continue to work hard to get a deal done that gets the goal-scoring winger back in the lineup this coming campaign.
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