Nikita Kucherov won't report without a contract
Wing Nikita Kucherov may have played for Russia in the World Cup without a contract.
But Kucherov, 23, a restricted free agent, won't be reporting to Lightning training camp until he's signed, GM Steve Yzerman told the Tampa Bay Times today. Yzerman said that message was relayed to him by Kucherov's agent, Scott Greenspun. The move is not uncommon for unsigned players, nor does it indicate a rift in negotiations.
"It's all part of the process," Yzerman said.
But with the season opening two weeks from today, no deal appears imminent. Kucherov, the team's leading scorer last season, could warrant $6 million or more annually. And that could be challenging for the Lightning, which has between $5-5.5 million of cap space remaining, per CapFriendly.com. It begs the question whether Tampa Bay may need to make another move to create room.
"What the contract ends up at will dictate what we need to do," Yzerman said. "We'll do what we have to do to get under the cap."
Yzerman has maintained he remains "very hopeful" to get Kucherov signed, saying he'd "push harder" now that the wing's stint in the World Cup was over. The Lightning's three other Russians - Andrei Vasilevskiy, Nikita Nesterov and Vladislav Namestnikov, have reported to camp.
"It's a priority for us, and will be a priority for us," Yzerman said. "Nikita is an outstanding young player and young man. We're hopeful we can reach an agreement as soon as possible and get him in here and ready for the season."
Kucherov isn't the only restricted free agent in the NHL unsigned, with the Flames' Johnny Gaudreau among many others in the same situation. Those restricted free agents without arbitration rights don't have a ton of leverage. If they are not signed by Dec. 1, they can't play the rest of the season. Yzerman said there's been no thoughts of trading Kucherov if they can't get him signed.
"I think a lot of it is the system," Yzerman said. "With the restricted free agents, there's not really a hard deadline. Closest deadline you can have is probably the first day of training camp or first day of the regular season. Because now both sides really got to make a decision, is the player willing to hold out? Every year, there's a half dozen and this year there seems to be a few more of the restricted free agents without arb rights not yet signed. And I would assume, history has shown, gradually over the next couple weeks they all eventually get signed."
Meanwhile, Kucherov's teammates go on with him, waiting to see what will happen.
"He's a big piece of our team, we're family and close together," said Tyler Johnson. "I can't imagine he wants to be anywhere else as well. We're hopeful things work out here."
Said veteran Valtteri Filppula: "Kind of same situation (captain Steven Stamkos) was in. We don't know really what's going on, but we're hoping for the best. And we'll see what happens. Good thing I'm not a GM or agent and have to negotiate that."