(Our series of "Ten questions for Lightning training camp" will run on this blog until camp officially opens Sept. 22 at Amalie Arena)
With the opening of Lightning training camp just three weeks away, star wing Nikita Kucherov is still not signed.
Some fans are concerned.
Kucherov's coach, Jon Cooper, is not.
"I'm confident Kuch is going to sign back," Cooper said Thursday.
That's been the popular refrain from the Lightning, with general manager Steve Yzerman telling the Tampa Bay Times several times this summer he expects to sign the restricted free agent. Yzerman cautioned it might take a while, even up to the start of the season (Oct. 13). But there's no doubt Kucherov, the team's leading scorer last season, is a priority. Yzerman has communicated with Kucherov's agent, Scott Greenspun, who has declined to comment publicly on negotatations.
"Sometimes they get done when they get done," Yzerman said. "You can't force it."
So why shouldn't Lightning fans panic - at least, not yet? Kucherov, 23, isn't the only notable restricted free agent unsigned. There's the Flames' Johnny Gaudreau,, Jets' Jacob Trouba, Sabres Rasmus Ristolainen, Ducks' Hampus Lindholm, Caps' Dmitry Orlov. Typically in negotiations, there needs to be a pressure-point, a deadline, to get things moving, and unlike other Lightning RFAs - like Alex Killorn and Vladislav Namestnikov - Kucherov didn't have a looming arbitration hearing. Kucherov is scheduled to join Team Russia's training camp next week for the World Cup of Hockey, which runs Sept. 17-Oct. 1. While Kucherov could, in theory, still participate in Lightning training camp (after the World Cup) without a deal, that doesn't seem like an ideal situation - for either side.
There are few players more important on the Lightning roster than Kucherov, a dynamic scorer who has 131 points in 159 games the past two seasons. He's been among the league's top clutch playoff performers the past two years, 42 points in 45 career playoff games. Yzerman called Kucherov a leader and "go-to-guy for us."
"He's a foundation player," said TSN analyst Craig Button, a former NHL GM. "Kucherov is a star."
And Kucherov likely wants to get paid like one. Therein lies the problem for the Lightning, which faces a cap crunch. It's uncertain what Kucherov is asking for, or if he'd be open to a bridge deal (such as the shorter term, three-year pact like Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat signed two years ago). But Kucherov, one of the league's best bargains at $700,000 cap hit last season, could warrant anywhere from the $6 million annual average Filip Forsberg got from the Predators (six years, $36 million), up to the $7.5 million Vladimir Tarasenko is making from the Blues (eight year, $60 million).
The Lightning has $6.2 million in cap space remaining for this season, if defenseman Slater Koekkoek (as some expect) makes the team, per CapFriendly.com. And that's only with 12 forwards and six defensemen on the 23-man roster. But it's likely closer to $5 million in space if Nikita Nesterov, also an RFA with a $742,000 cap hit last season, is re-signed (or veteran James Wisniewski makes team on PTO), and a 14th forward (at minimum of $575,000), is included.
That doesn't leave a ton of room for Kucherov, unless another move is eventually made. And that could explain why this has taken so long to get done. I asked Yzerman last month 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, when it must be cap compliant. Putting Ryan Callahan (hip surgery) on long term injury reserve to start the season could help, but only temporarily, as 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), Valtteri Filppula ($5 million cap hit, no move clause), or defenseman Jason Garrison ($4.6 million, NTC). Dealing Brian Boyle ($2 million) or Erik Condra ($1.25 million) wouldn't save them a ton. And the challenge gets bigger next summer, with $55 million already committed for 2017-18 and Johnson, Palat and Jonathan Drouin all RFAs.
The Lightning has already had a banner offseason by taking care of its own, from locking up cornerstone players Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman for eight years, wing Alex Killorn for seven.
Now it's Kucherov's turn. And the clock is ticking.