BRANDON — Turns out, wing Nikita Kucherov might be available for Thursday's Lightning season opener against the Red Wings after all.
Kucherov, 23, a restricted free agent, flew from Russia to Tampa on Monday as he neared a deal with the Lightning. That contract could be finalized today.
It would more likely be a short-term "bridge" deal than long term because of the Lightning's salary cap crunch.
Kucherov, the team's leading scorer last season, had been working out in his native Russia awaiting a contract. But it appeared his holdout would not linger into the regular season. His return would be a big boost for a team with Stanley Cup aspirations.
"I consider him a superstar in this league," wing Alex Killorn said. "It'd be huge for our team."
Kucherov, who made $700,000 last season, was expected to warrant $6 million or more annually in a long-term deal. But the Lightning has just $5 million to $5.5 million in cap space so it doesn't look like that type of contract is available. Instead of taking a discounted six- to seven-year deal, Kucherov could go with a shorter, two- to three-year pact at a smaller annual average, with the potential for a bigger future contract. Kucherov, with limited leverage as a restricted free agent, could theoretically sit out until Dec. 1, but after that he'd be ineligible to play the rest of the season. It doesn't look like it will get that far.
The Lightning appears to be preparing for anything, including a Kucherov signing, leading up to Tuesday's 5 p.m. deadline to set the roster and become cap compliant. Tampa Bay put three players on waivers Monday — forwards Erik Condra, Cory Conacher and Joel Vermin — which at least gives it flexibility.
Coach Jon Cooper warned not to read too much into the moves, noting it doesn't guarantee all three will be sent to AHL Syracuse if they clear by noon today. They just can be.
The roster limit is 23, and Condra, Conacher and Vermin were among the 23 active players at Monday's practice in Brandon; wing Ryan Callahan skated, but will start the season on injured reserve as he recovers from June hip surgery.
But there are a lot of moving parts. If Kucherov is signed, prospect Brayden Point could get sent down to AHL, where he'd play a top line role as opposed to a bottom-six, extra forward role in the NHL. The Lightning could also elect to carry just 13 forwards instead of 14, which would create some cap space.
The financial flexibility comes into play this way. The first $950,000 of a salary doesn't count toward the cap if a player is sent to the AHL. So Conacher's $575,000 wouldn't count if he's in Syracuse, and just $300,000 of Condra's $1.25 million would.
Conacher, who signed a one-way deal in July, realized it'd be a fight for a roster spot, but hopes to stay in the organization.
"I knew it was going to be tough, I knew there was a lot of competition," Conacher said. "And I'm not done yet. Whether they send me down or not, I'll get in games, do my best to get called back up."
Condra was not available for comment Monday. He is entering the second year of a three-year, $3.75 million deal signed before last season. Condra wasn't as effective as hoped last season, often finding himself a healthy scratch down the stretch, and in the playoffs. Even if Condra makes the team, he'll be battling for his spot in the lineup.
"I always say, I'd rather have all the talent than none of the talent," Cooper said. "It's a good problem to have as a coach."
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.