TAMPA — Considering how long it took for wing Nikita Kucherov and the Lightning to agree on a contract, it was fitting the wing faced obstacles just getting to Tampa on 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 on Monday night. His flight was delayed at the gate upon landing, and he missed his connection to Tampa. So Kucherov scrambled to find a hotel, taking an early flight to Tampa Tuesday morning to sign 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 kept its leading scorer and remained about $1 million under the salary cap, per CapFriendly.com. It was the final piece of general manager Steve Yzerman's successful summer plan to keep the band together, having re-signed cornerstones Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman to eight-year deals, and wing Alex Killorn to seven.
"(Kucherov) is an important player to us," Yzerman said. "A talented guy, a really good guy, a smart guy. He's everything we want in a player."
Kucherov hoped for a long-term deal, and could have sought in the range of the $6.75 million annual average Flames star Johnny Gaudreau landed in a six-year pact Monday. But that wasn't available with the Lightning, which had just $5 million to $5.5 million in cap space. Yzerman said he'd be open to pursuing a long-term deal in a couple more years. But this one "made sense."
With the team holding leverage, Kucherov didn't have many options other than to accept the best "bridge" deal he could get. Taking a discounted long-term deal wasn't ideal. Neither was the thought of his holdout lingering into the regular season. He could have sat until Dec. 1 before being ineligible for the rest of the season. But did Kucherov really want to remain home until the Lightning traded a teammate to clear cap room for him?
"We didn't want him to miss time," Yzerman said. "He didn't want to miss time."
Kucherov will still be a restricted free agent once this deal is up, but he'll have more leverage, just a year from unrestricted free agency. Plus he'll have arbitration rights. In a sense, Kucherov is betting on himself. If he continues his pace — 29 goals in 2014-15 and 30 last season — his price tag will only go up.
Kucherov, well-respected in the dressing room, wants to play, and specifically, with this team. And Yzerman said he expects Kucherov to be in the lineup Thursday night against the Red Wings at Amalie Arena. He could practice this morning in Brandon.
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. "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."