Nikita Kucherov still isn't in Lightning camp, and that shouldn't come as a surprise.
The wing is a restricted free agent without a contract. Agent Scott Greenspun told general manager Steve Yzerman that until Kucherov is signed, he will hold out. Most players in Kucherov's position do the same, including several others around the league currently.
"It's all part of the process," Yzerman said.
That doesn't mean there shouldn't be at least some concern. The season opener is less than two weeks away, and the team's leading scorer last season, one of its most important players, is not here. The encouraging news is both sides continue to talk. There's no acrimony. Kucherov isn't requesting a trade, like Jets defenseman Jacob Trouba. Yzerman said he hasn't even considered dealing Kucherov, even as they struggle to come to terms.
The Lightning wants Kucherov. Kucherov wants to stay.
"It's 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."
The catch is this: It's complicated.
It's hard to know how far apart the sides are, with Yzerman and Greenspun declining to comment on negotiations. But Kucherov, at 23 one of the league's top young stars, is a 30-goal scorer and likely wants to get paid like one; he could command $6 million annually or more. The Lightning has between $5 million and $5.5 million of salary cap space remaining, according to the cap website capfriendly.com.
Does the Lightning need to make a trade to clear room for Kucherov?
"What the (Kucherov) 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."
Restricted free agents without arbitration rights don't have a ton of leverage or a pressure point of an impending deadline for signing. If they are not signed by Dec. 1, they can't play in the NHL for the rest of the season. Don't expect Kucherov's situation to get to that.
Maybe Kucherov, if unable to get the desired long-term deal, will accept a bridge deal, with plans to hit a bigger payday in a couple of years. Perhaps the Lightning creates cap space by making a trade.
"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 (doing it), 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."
It's not like missing some preseason games will hurt Kucherov, who played for Russia in three games and exhibitions during the highly competitive World Cup. But his teammates move on with camp, including Thursday's preseason win against the Panthers, and wait.
"He's a big piece of our team," center Tyler Johnson said. "We're family and close together. I can't imagine he wants to be anywhere else as well. We're hopeful things work out here."
Said veteran Valtteri Filppula: "Good thing I'm not a GM or agent and have to negotiate that."
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.