Signing Nikita Kucherov all part of Yzerplan which can still include Erik Karlsson

Trust in the Yzerplan. He’s rarely led us astray so far.

The “Yzerplan” has been a bit of a running joke among the Tampa Bay Lightning fan base for some years now, especially on Twitter. It even went so far that hockey apparel company Bring Back Hockey jumped in on the action with a t-shirt a couple years ago. Maybe we can convince them to bring it back for another run?

Back to the Yzerplan. Signing Nikita Kucherov to a long-term contract has been a part of the Yzerplan all along for GM Steve Yzerman. Kucherov has developed into a star after the Lightning drafted him in the 2nd round of the 2011 NHL Entry Draft. He had his breakout season as the right wing of the vaunted Triplets line with Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat in 2014-15. As a member of the best even strength line in all of hockey that season, he posted 29 goals and 36 assists for 65 points over 82 games. He followed that with 22 points in 26 playoff games as the Lightning made it to the Stanley Cup Final.

He started to find success with other line mates in 2015-16 as Johnson and Palat both struggled with injuries. He continued his production and hit the 30 goal mark and bested his 2014-15 mark with 66 points in five less games. He also put up 11 goals and 19 points in 17 playoff games before falling to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference Finals.

With his entry level contract finished, it was time to sign him to a new contract. The negotiation was somewhat contentious with Kucherov wanting long term security. On the other side, Yzerman was trying to make the contract fit without having to move on from another player, thus giving them the best chance to go for another run at the Stanley Cup. Kucherov played in the World Cup of Hockey for Team Russia without a contract. Then just days before training camp was set to open, Kucherov agreed to a bridge contract of three years with a $4.67 million cap hit. It was certainly a bargain for the team and they got more than their money’s worth.

Over the next two seasons, Kucherov had 40 and 39 goals and set new career highs with 85 and then 100 points. In 2016-17, he did that all without Steven Stamkos for most of the season as he tore his meniscus just a month into the season. 2017-18 saw him paired with Stamkos and fellow Russian Vladislav Namestnikov and they were off to the races early. Namestnikov fell off the line mid-season as the line stagnated and stopped producing for a while.

If not for that mid-season slump by Kucherov and his line mates, he would have remained in the conversation for the Hart trophy as MVP and probably would have won the Art Ross trophy for having the most points. Instead, he ended up with 100 points to come up 8 points short of Connor McDavid and two points behind Claude Giroux for third in the league. He became the third Lightning player to hit the 100 point plateau and was the 19th player to do so since the 2004 lockout for the 31st such season in that time span.

With a year remaining on his contract, there wasn’t a rush to get him re-signed now. There was even mutterings shortly after the season that he and the team wasn’t in a rush and there was certainly a question if he would wait another year to see if he could push his value even higher. A week ago, Yzerman sat down with his agent and both sides were ready to get a deal done with him signing an eight-year extension for $9.5 million per year that can keep him in Tampa until just before he turns 34 years old.

So the most obvious reaction that a lot of people around hockey had was “Well, I guess Yzerman is out on Karlsson.” And I have to ask back “How so?” Do you really think that signing Kucherov to a hefty extension wasn’t a part of his plan? Do you really think that signing Karlsson meant he would jettison one of the best wingers in the league right now at 25 years old?”

I don’t believe so. Yzerman has a great asset on his staff in Julien Brisebois. Brisebois came up through the Montreal Canadiens organization with a background as a lawyer. He started as a Director of Hockey Operations in 2003, and eventually became the VP of Hockey Operations for the Canadiens and the General Manager of the AHL’s Hamilton Bulldogs. When Yzerman was hired to be the GM of the Lightning, he soon added Brisebois to his staff as Assistant General Manager and General Manager of the AHL’s Norfolk Admirals and then of the Syracuse Crunch when the affiliation was changed.

From the Lightning’s staff profile on their web site of Brisebois, he assists in “all aspects of player personnel decisions, analytics, player development, contract preparation and negotiation, as well as salary arbitration for the Lightning [...] BriseBois also manages interpretation of the NHL’s collective bargaining agreement and the salary cap for Tampa Bay.”

Brisebois is so important to this front office staff, that it was reported twice over the past year or so by Eliotte Friedman that the Lightning had locked him up with a contract that did not give him an out to take a general manager job at this time. Think about that. He was so important, and being considered for open GM jobs, that the Lightning likely paid him a higher salary than otherwise to make sure they kept him in Tampa Bay.

The Lightning have certainly shown their adeptness at managing and navigating the salary cap and Brisebois is a big part of that. It’s hard to think that the Lightning would have even considered wading into the Karlsson conversation without a plan that included keeping Kucherov long term. I wouldn’t be surprised if Brisebois has worked up dozens of scenarios with different contract amounts, different potential salary caps, different trade possibilities, or the emergence of certain prospects to give the team an idea of what they need to do to go down any of these routes. And adding Karlsson is likely one of them.

So just because the Lightning have re-signed Kucherov to this hefty contract extension does not mean they are out on Karlsson. All that it has done is two things; shown Karlsson that one of Tampa’s superstars will remain in Tampa for the long haul and thus, given the team a great chance of success... and locked in one of the variables in all of the plans that the front office has come up with.

There’s still a lot of known unknowns in the form of extensions to Brayden Point and Andrei Vasilevskiy to go along with the development of young prospects, but one of the biggest ones has been set.

Don’t count the team out on Karlsson yet. There are plenty of moving parts and there are plenty of lines of play for this team to get a deal done and not jeopardize the future of this team and it’s chances to win a Stanley Cup.