1. Lightning

Fennelly: Something's got to give if Kucherov is to return to Lightning

Published Sep. 30, 2016

The Lightning have already done the hard part, even if it took Steven Stamkos doing the heavy thinking and lifting.

No. 91 will soon be back from the World Cup of Hockey.

Now, about 86 …

Nikita Kucherov, getting him signed, is the next big jigsaw piece that Lightning GM Steve Yzerman has to fit into the board.

It will happen.

It can't not happen.

But something will have to give.

Kucherov, 23, is a 40-goal man in the making. He has been a playoff sensation for two years running, He doesn't have a contract, and won't be at camp on the ice until he does. Understandable.

Thought this would be done by now.

Opening Night is less than two weeks away.

Really, the last time something like this happened with the Lightning at the turn of this century, well, 2001, was when a certified young star and restricted free agent didn't have a contract. He didn't come to camp.

Name: Vinny Lecavalier.

Vinny got his deal the day just before the season began.

Then he was relieved of his captaincy by coach John Tortorella.

Ah, the good old days.

Really, it all worked out back then. There's a Stanley Cup in the rafters at Amalie Arena last time I checked.

And it will work out now, too.

Kucherov will get his money.

He has to get his money.

This is simply the price of being good.

The Lightning had the most players at the World Cup of Hockey. Of their 10 skaters in Toronto, eight scored.

The Bolts also have five players ranked among the Top 50 in the Hockey News preseason guide. Only Chicago has as many. Stamkos is on there. Victor Hedman is on there. Ben Bishop is on there. Ondrej Palat, the team's most underrated player, is on there. And Nikita Kucherov is on there.

The price of being good is you can't keep everyone. That's why Bishop is gone, at the end of the season at the latest. The price of being good is why Chicago couldn't afford to keep scorer Brandon Saad. He was traded. Onto the Blackhawks roster stepped Artemi Panarin, who won rookie of the year. The Lightning can't count on that kind of luck.

They need Kucherov. Soon.

Something will have to give. The Bolts will have to lose someone.

Leading candidates:

1. Bishop. $5.9 million. He was all but gone to Calgary in the offseason.

2. Center Tyler Johnson. $3.3 million. But he is your No. 2 center?

3. Center Val Filppula. $5 million salary. What team is picking up that?

4. Defenseman Jason Garrison. $4.5 million salary. Can the Bolts really spare a defenseman?

This sounds like electoral math, but any one of those salaries would clear enough space to sign Kucherov, who will command $6 million or more. I'd bet on more.

It means a move will have to happen sooner rather than later.

There's the problem.

Bishop has the most to offer for another team. Don't rule Johnson out as the odd man out, though he was raised by Lightning coach Jon Cooper.

Think about it: We're talking about two guys we can't imagine the Lightning without.

Sometimes it's not easy being a good hockey team stocked with talent. It's not easy being an early favorite to return to the Stanley Cup Final. The Lightning came up short last season.

It wasn't because Stamkos didn't get a deal during the season. That was so much of a distraction that the Lightning only made the ... Eastern Conference finals.

But do you really want to go into this season without Kucherov? I mean, Stamkos was on the ice. Kucherov wouldn't be. That's the difference. Does this team need to start out like that?

Maybe Kucherov will settle for a shorter deal and cash in later.

I wouldn't count on it. But I would never count out Yzerman. Almost everything he has done as Lightning GM has turned into something good, if not gold.

This is another puzzle to be solved.

Let's see how it plays out.

Better play out soon.