The long, dark regional nightmare is finally over. After dragging negotiations to the absolute limit (no, really, the deadline for rosters to be set was 5:00pm Tuesday) the Tampa Bay Lightning have re-signed Nikita Kucherov. The 23-year-old Russian is now set to make an average of $4.766 million over the next 3 years. That will buy a lot of room service.
Rumors began trickling out Monday afternoon that a deal would be done. Then the Lightning announced that Joel Vermin, Erik Condra and Cory Conachar were put on waivers. Speculation that it was to free up cap space to finish the deal trickled through Twitter. Later in the day it was reported and confirmed by Joe Smith of the Tampa Bay Times that Kucherov was on his way back to Tampa.
The bridge deal buys the Lightning some time to figure out the rest of their finances. Even if Kucherov plays out the entire bridge deal (unlikely) the Lightning will still control his rights. With the 3-year deal he will still be a restricted free agent for another season when it’s done. Next season is going to be a mess, but at least they have a bit certainty with Kucherov for a couple of seasons.
For Kucherov, he gets a pretty hefty raise over the $700,000 he made last season. He also gets a shot at another big pay day in a couple of years. In all likelihood they agree to a two year deal this year and then on next July 1st announce a long term, big money extension like Victor Hedman signed this summer.
The contract breaks a bit of a trend for young forwards in the NHL. The norm has been for teams to lock up their talent to deals in the 6-year $36 million range. Just on Monday night, fellow RFA Johnny Gaudreau signed a new deal with Calgary for 6 years and $40.5 million. The problem for the Lightning is that they can't sign all of their young players for that kind of money.
So what do the Lightning get for their investment? One of the best young right wingers in the NHL. Over the last two seasons (his first two full seasons in the NHL), Kucherov has scored 59 goals. That puts him the same company as Vladimir Tarasenko, Corey Perry and Patrick Kane.
There is an excellent chance that the goal total would be higher if he shot the puck more. He has scored those 59 shots on only 400 shots. Tarasenko has 18 more goals, but he also has 156 more shots. Finding the open man instead of shooting more is a habit that he has had since childhood. That habit occasionally leads to frustration when Kucherov opts to make a pass instead of firing the puck on net.
He does have excellent vision on the ice, which is probably one of the reasons why he does defer to pass the puck. It also leads to him excelling on the power play. Of his 66 points last year, 25 came on the power play. With Todd Richards now directing the special teams he could see those point totals with the extra man go up.
His return also brings continuity to the roster. With the right winger back under contract Tampa Bay keeps together the almost identical line up that has been to two consecutive Eastern Conference finals. Kucherov will find his spot most likely along Steven Stamkos and Alex Killorn on the top line while Jonathan Drouin plays with Ondrej Palat and a healthy Tyler Johnson.
The Lightning have enough offensive talent that teams can't focus on shutting down one line or another. The Bruins can only have Chara play against one of their lines. If Kucherov hadn't come back then the Lightning would be looking to fill his spot with Brayden Point (a little raw and out of position) or Valtteri Filppula (too slow and refuses to shoot). Neither option has the potential to score 30 goals.
Getting back to the playoffs means Kucherov returns to the stage where he rose to national prominence. In his career Kucherov has appeared in 45 playoff games. He's scored 22 goals and added another 20 assists. Three of his goals were game winners and two of those game winners came in overtime. Last season saw him score 11 times in 17 games and that was with teams focusing on him due to the absence of Stamkos.
The scary part is that Kucherov may not have reached the top of his potential yet. At only 23, his prime scoring years should be in front of him. With his hands and sneaky quick shot he has the potential to score 40+ goals on a yearly basis. With him locked up for at least 3 more years that should scare Lightning opponents.
He is dedicated to improving his game. Even after the success of last season he continues to work hard. His success isn't from his size (he's only about 178 lbs) but from his tenacity. His coach has called him a “rink rat”. With no contract he could have just sat at home in Russia. Instead he risked injury by playing in the World Cup then went back and rented a rink to work out in. Hard work plus talent is a dangerous combination.
Once again General Manager Steve Yzerman gets a player for below market value. The $4.766 AAV is a bargain for a player who is capable of scoring 40 goals. It also leaves some room for him to make deals throughout the season should the need arise.
Now the bad news. The Lightning have very little cap room. Even with Mr. Yzerman's manipulations the money is gone. They should be able to make it through this season, but after that things will get interesting. Ben Bishop is probably gone. Filppula is gone (if they can find a taker). Alex Killorn might be gone. The band is going to be broken up. Yes, they have pieces to fill in, but next year's team will be different. Better or worse? Who knows, but definitely different.
That's a problem for next season though. The Lightning are heavily favored to win the Atlantic and advance to the Eastern Conference finals again this season. If they manage to win the Stanley Cup, then Kucherov's contract is a small price to pay.