Let's talk about what I'm sure is lingering in the back of everyone's mind. It might not be at the brim of your thoughts, or something that you think of every day but it's there whether you like it or not. Kind of like thinking about an airplane crashing on takeoff; sure, it's probably not going to happen, but when you're taxiing down the runway it flirts through your mind.
What are we thinking about but not really trying to think about? The chance that Nikita Kucherov doesn't sign a new deal with the Tampa Bay Lightning.
I know, I know. it's not going to happen. Surely within minutes of this article appearing on the Internet, the Lightning will announce a nice long-term deal for their Russian scorer of goals. General Manager Steve Yzerman is already on record assuring fans that it's just a matter of time and convenience. Just last week, he told the Tampa Bay Times "we expect to have him under contract to start the season". Wait that was two weeks ago? And nothing has happened since then. Well that can't be good.
There is a chance, however small it might be, that Mr. Yzerman is lying to us. Honestly, I wouldn't be mad if he is. To be a good GM you have to be somewhat of a trustworthy liar. After all, how can you win if everyone knows what cards your holding?
There are a few ways this negotiation can work out:
- Kucherov can accept the qualifying offer that was made back in June. As a player making more than $660,000 the team can offer him a contract worth 105% of his previous year's salary. In Kucherov's case that would mean he would play the 2016-17 season for $735,000. If he chose to do that, all other GMs in the league would need to quit, because Mr. Yzerman just pulled off the greatest contract in the history of the NHL. That is not going to happen.
- Another team, out of need or just to spite the Lightning, could throw an offer sheet at him worth millions of dollars. Tampa Bay would be forced to match it or let him go and receive compensation in the form of draft picks. I don't see the Lightning letting him go for less than $5.63 million which is that magic number that triggers compensation of a first round, second round and third round pick. If another team offers him a deal worth more than that, I think Mr. Yzerman might let him walk. However, despite everyone loving to talk about offer sheets, they rarely happen. I don't think it happens in this case either.
The two sides announce a short-term or "bridge" contract. Two or three years long and for a reasonable cap hit, it could appeal to both sides. The Lightning aren't locked into a long commitment and Kucherov gets paid during his restricted free agent years and has another shot at a big deal during his prime earning years. This could happen, as the Lightning signed Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat to similar deals two seasons ago. However, the Lightning risk delaying the inevitable (a long-term expensive deal), and having to compete with other teams since Kucherov would qualify for unrestricted free agency by the end of the bridge deal. This could happen but I don't think it does.
- The Lightning and Kucherov announce that they have agreed to a long-term deal. This is the most likely case. Thirty-goal scorers don't just pop up everywhere. Especially ones that are only 23-years-old. It will create some salary cap havoc and probably be the final nail in the Trade Valtteri Filppula Coffin, but it's in their best interest to make a deal now and have some cost certainty moving forward.
- Kucherov doesn't sign his qualifying offer and burns a year. This is the dirty little thought that lingers in the back of our minds. A thought that is exasperated by the fact that Kucherov is Russian. Why does his ethnicity play into this? Because there is a rival professional hockey league that is always open to the idea of paying their native sons lots of money to come play in the Motherland.
It wouldn't be that shocking that if Kucherov doesn't like the offer from Mr. Yzerman he packs up his skates and goes home. Even though the money isn't flowing like it used to in the KHL, there should be at least one team willing to offer him many, many rubles to come home.
Not signing a new deal would be a nuclear option. The NHL and its general managers don't take kindly to players that jump ship from the league. Should Kucherov chose to do that and then want to come back to the NHL, he might find it tough sledding when he wants to come back. It can be done - after all Montreal just signed Alexander Radulov to a contract after he abandoned Nashville with one year left on his deal (Radulov did eventually come back and fulfill his contractual obligation, even if he did a little partying while doing so).
Not signing his qualifying offer doesn't necessarily strengthen Kucherov's position After all, he sits at home and the Lightning keep trucking along. If he doesn't sign by December 1st then he is not eligible to play in the upcoming season at all and the Lightning still hold his rights. At best, sitting out forces Mr. Yzerman to trade him to a different team that the Russian can negotiate a deal more to his liking.
Not many players take this route past the early stages of training camp. In the last couple of seasons, Brock Nelson of the Islanders and Ryan Johansen, formerly of the Blue Jackets were two of the biggest examples of players waiting until the last minute to sign new deals with their team.
P.K. Subban worried Canadiens' fans two summers ago when he waited until the last minute to sign an 8-year deal with Montreal. Subban's situation was a little different as arbitration was looming in his case. The Lighting and Kucherov did not go the arbitration route so the only actual deadline is December 1st.
Like I said earlier this is most likely an exercise in futility. Kucherov will be signed by the Bolts very soon. There is probably one or two things that are holding it up (most likely how Tampa Bay is going to clear cap space) and once that sticking point is cleared, the contract will be announced quickly. Still, until it is actually announced that little voice in the back of our heads is just going to keep getting a little louder.