TAMPA — On July 1, Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman said he was confident he would re-sign wing Nikita Kucherov, hopefully sooner than later.
A month later, Yzerman maintained he expected to get a deal done with the restricted free agent, noting it may take until the start of the season.
Late last week?
"I'm hopeful," Yzerman said.
That doesn't ring the most optimistic tone if you're a Lightning fan. Training camp opens 10 days from today, and Tampa Bay's leading scorer last season, Kucherov, 23, is still unsigned. A deal doesn't appear close. In what's been a banner offseason for the Lightning, including the re-signings of cornerstones Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman, this could be a significant wrinkle.
Yzerman said his goal is to have Kucherov signed by the time the wing returns from the World Cup in Toronto, where he'll play for Russia. The tournament, which begins Saturday, ends Oct. 1. Though Kucherov theoretically could participate in Lightning camp without a new deal, it wouldn't be an ideal situation. Coach Jon Cooper remains confident Kucherov will sign.
"We'll see," Kucherov told nhl.com.
To be fair, Kucherov isn't the only notable restricted free agent unsigned. There's Flames wing Johnny Gaudreau, Jets defenseman Jacob Trouba, Sabres defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen, Ducks defenseman Hampus Lindholm and Capitals defenseman Dmitry Orlov. Typically in negotiations, there needs to be a deadline to get things moving, and unlike Lightning restricted free agents Alex Killorn and Vladislav Namestnikov this offseason, Kucherov didn't have a looming arbitration hearing.
Kucherov's agent, Scott Greenspun, has declined to comment on negotiations.
"It's not something we're worried about," veteran wing Ryan Callahan said. "It's just part of the process. Guys go through it. I've seen it almost every year. Some guys stretch it out. I've seen guys miss a couple days of camp before. It'll get done when both sides think it's right."
Few players are more important to the Lightning than Kucherov, a dynamic scorer who has 131 points in 159 games the past two seasons. He has been among the league's top clutch playoff performers the past two years, with 42 points in 45 career playoff games. Yzerman called Kucherov a leader and "go-to guy for us."
"He's a foundation player," said TV analyst Craig Button, a former NHL general manager. "Kucherov is a star."
And Kucherov likely wants to get paid like one. Therein lies the problem for the Lightning, which faces a salary cap crunch. It's uncertain what Kucherov is asking for, or if he'd be open to a bridge deal, such as the three-year pacts Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat signed two years ago. But Kucherov, one of the league's best bargains at a $700,000 cap hit last season, could warrant anywhere from the $6 million annual average center Filip Forsberg got from the Predators (six years, $36 million) to the $7.5 million wing Vladimir Tarasenko got from the Blues (eight year, $60 million).
Russia's Sport-Express newspaper reported that CSKA Moscow of the KHL offered Kucherov a contract, though there were "no real" talks.
"You have to understand, these players are making a living, too, and their window of making this type of money is short," Cooper said. "You can't fault somebody for that."
The website capfriendly.com calculates that the Lightning has $6.2 million in cap space remaining for this season, if defenseman Slater Koekkoek makes the team, as some expect. And that's with only 12 forwards and six defensemen on the 23-man roster. But the amount is likely closer to $5 million if defenseman Nikita Nesterov, also a restricted free agent and who had a $742,000 cap hit last season, is re-signed (or veteran defenseman James Wisniewski makes team on a tryout deal), and a 14th forward is included at a minimum of $575,000.
That doesn't leave a ton of room for Kucherov, unless another move is made. And that could explain why his situation is still unresolved. Is the Lightning trying to clear cap room? I asked Yzerman if he could sign Kucherov and Nesterov without making another deal first, and he said, "No question."
The Lightning can go 10 percent above the $73 million cap until the season starts Oct. 13, when it must be cap compliant. Putting Callahan (hip surgery) on long-term injured reserve to start the season could help temporarily. He's expected to return in mid November.
Tampa Bay can clear some space by making a trade, whether that's goalie Ben Bishop ($5.95 million cap hit, partial no-move clause), forward Valtteri Filppula ($5 million cap hit, no-move clause) or defenseman Jason Garrison ($4.6 million, no-trade clause). But Yzerman said he could see a scenario in which Bishop plays the entire season in Tampa Bay. And his challenge gets bigger next summer, with $55 million already committed for 2017-18 and Johnson, Palat and Jonathan Drouin restricted free agents.
The Lightning can't keep everyone. You'd just think Kucherov would be part of the plan.
"Sometimes it just takes time," Yzerman said. "We'll continue to work."
The clock is ticking.