With one week until the Lightning's season opener, wing Nikita Kucherov remains in Russia, the unsigned restricted free agent holding out until he has a contract.
It's far from an ideal situation for Tampa Bay, which could wrap up its exhibition schedule Saturday against Nashville without its 23-year-old leading scorer from last season.
But take it from former captain Vinny Lecavalier, it's not easy on the player, either. Lecavalier held out as a 21-year-old restricted free agent in 2001, not signing until a day before the first regular-season game.
"You want to play. You don't want to be sitting at home and not being with your teammates," Lecavalier said Wednesday. "It's the business part of it. Everyone wishes you got your contract done before. But that's not the way it always happens. … I'm sure (Kucherov) is training and making sure he's ready, so when he signs, he'll be ready to go."
During his holdout, Lecavalier worked out at home in Montreal, skating with college players while preparing for camp. Kucherov at least played for Russia in last month's World Cup of Hockey, an experience that included a training camp and three highly competitive tournament games.
As is Kucherov, Lecavalier was coming off a season in which he ranked second on the team in goals, yet was making a bargain entry-level salary, $975,000. Kucherov made $700,000 last season, when he scored 30 goals, second on the Lightning to Steven Stamkos' 36.
Kucherov could command $6 million or more per season. The Lightning has between $5 million and $5.5 million of salary cap room left. General manager Steve Yzerman is hopeful about getting a deal done, though nothing appeared imminent Wednesday. Kucherov wants to stay with the Lightning.
"Both sides have to be happy to get a deal done," Lecavalier said.
The Lightning didn't have a salary cap to deal with in 2001, just its budget, said Jay Feaster, then an assistant GM who negotiated contracts. Tampa Bay also wasn't the Stanley Cup contender it is today, having finished 24-47-6-5, fifth in the Southeast Division in 2000-01. Feaster — also a former Lightning GM and its current executive director of community hockey development — said he knew it was a distinct possibility Lecavalier's holdout could lead to the captain missing the opener. "It certainly wasn't the case of 'Let's just wait him out,' " Feaster said. "We were communicating constantly and consistently trying to figure out a way to get to a 'Yes.' "
Lecavalier said the holdout didn't create hard feelings with the team. He was stripped of his captaincy early that season, but Feaster said that had "nothing to do with the holdout" but was an organizational decision made to take pressure off the future face of the franchise. Lecavalier's trade request that December had more to do with his complicated relationship with then-coach John Tortorella, the two eventually gelling and hoisting the 2004 Stanley Cup.
Feaster said that from a management perspective, it's understood why players without a contract stay away, partly to protect themselves and spur negotiations. Kucherov is one of several current restricted free agents holding out, including Calgary wing Johnny Gaudreau.
"It's a business reality," Feaster said. "There was a certain amount of money we were able to spend (in 2001), and we were mindful of contracts we had coming. The same thing with players. Just as there may be a window to win the Cup, there's a window a player has to maximize his income."