Nikita Kucherov signs three-year deal with Lightning
Considering how long it took for Nikita Kucherov and the Lightning to agree on a contract, it was fitting the wing faced obstacles just getting to Tampa Tuesday to sign.
Kucherov, 23, a restricted free agent, was holding out in his native Russia during negotiations. But with a deal imminent, he flew to New York Monday night. His flight was delayed at the gate upon landing, forcing him to miss his connection to Tampa and scramble to find a hotel. Kucherov took an early flight to Tampa this morning, signing a three-year deal worth $4.766 million annually.
“It’s nice to be here, and I’m happy," Kucherov said.
The deal was a boon for the Lightning, which was able to retain its leading scorer and still remain about $800,000 under the salary cap. It was the final part of GM Steve Yzerman's successful summer plan to keep the band together, having re-signed cornerstones Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman to eight year deals, wing Alex Killorn to seven.
Kucherov was hoping to land a long-term deal, and could warrant in the range of the $6.75 million annual average Flames' star Johnny Gaudreau landed on a six-year pact Monday. But that deal wasn't available with the Lightning, which had just $5 million-$5.5 million in cap space.
So Kucherov settled for a "bridge" deal, taking him closer to unrestricted free agency and a larger payday. Kucherov will still be a restricted free agent when this deal expires, but will have more leverage in arbitration rights. If Kucherov continues his pace, a 29-goal season in 2014-15 and 30 goals last season, his price tag will only go up.
Kucherov could have holded out, having up until Dec. 1 before he became ineligible to play the rest of the season. But would Kucherov really want to sit until the Lightning trades another teammate away to clear more cap space? Or watch Tampa Bay struggle without him?
Kucherov, well-loved in the Lightning dressing room, wants to play, and specifically, with this team, which is a Stanley Cup contender. And it looks like he could be available for Thursday's opener against Detroit. Kucherov will likely do a lot of sleeping today after the travel madness, but has one more practice Wednesday in Brandon to get re-acclimated with his teammates.
Kucherov missed the Lightning preseason, but played for Russia in the World Cup of Hockey, which should make him more prepared to start the season.
“I hope so," Kucherov said, per the team's website. "I’ve never played that kind of tournament before a season, and I’ve never been in this kind of situation. I don’t know what to expect, but I think it’s going to help me be, it don’t take a little while to get into the season. This year, it’s going to maybe be a little quicker. But I think it was great to have that tournament before the season.”
The Lightning has to set its roster, and become cap compliant, by 5 p.m. today. The three forwards it placed on waivers Monday - Erik Condra, Cory Conacher and Joel Vermin - all cleared at noon today.
But in signing Kucherov, the Lightning checked off a critical final piece of the puzzle.