TAMPA — The Lightning will have to defend their Stanley Cup championship without their leading scorer at least through the regular season.
Wing Nikita Kucherov has hip surgery scheduled for next week and is expected to miss the 56-game regular season, general manager Julien BriseBois announced Wednesday.
The team hopes to have Kucherov back in time for the playoffs, which are scheduled to start in mid May.
“Those are the cards that we’ve been dealt,” BriseBois said. “No one loves playing hockey more than Nikita Kucherov. I know how much it pains him and that he will be missing the regular season. I also know how hard he’s going to work to get back as soon as possible.
“And now it’s our job as a group — players, coaches, management — to get ourselves into the playoffs so that we give ‘Kuch’ an opportunity to compete this year and help us defend the Stanley Cup championship.”
Kucherov — who led the Lightning with 33 goals, 52 assists and 85 points last regular season and 34 points in the playoffs — first reported discomfort in the hip Dec. 3, BriseBois said. He received treatment that included a cortisone injection, but the injury didn’t improve. The Lightning received another evaluation from hip specialist Dr. Bryan Kelly in New York.
The surgery will be similar to those performed on forwards Brayden Point and Yanni Gourde, who both returned to full strength.
“Everyone felt that it was the best thing to do to have the surgery now,” BriseBois said. “Dr. Kelly felt that with this type of injury, the sooner in your career you have the surgery, the better the likelihood is that you will come back just as good, if not better than ever. So factoring in that, and the fact that it was looking like it was going to be impossible for ‘Kuch’ to fight through four months of this and then playoffs, we felt the timing was best to have the surgery now.”
Kucherov’s situation gives the Lightning an easier, though unfortunate, way to get under the $81.5 million salary cap by placing him on long-term injury reserve.
They will retain their top three restricted free agent targets. They have re-signed defensemen Mikhail Sergachev and Erik Cernak, and have a deal in place for forward Anthony Cirelli.
Even with long-term injury relief from Kucherov’s situation, the Lightning don’t have much cap maneuverability, so BriseBois is still trying to clear additional space to give them added spending flexibility.
“At least now, I know that if none of those trade talks come to an agreement, at least we’ll be able to be cap compliant and that the roster is going to include a lot of really good players, some high-end players, and when I look at the team on paper, it’s a really competitive team,” he said. “Now we have to go out there and do it on the ice.”
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The Lightning tried to trade forward Tyler Johnson during the offseason to free up cap space; they also put him on waivers and found no takers. BriseBois said three teams were interested in a trade while last season was shut down for the coronavirus pandemic, but when BriseBois reached back out to those teams in the offseason, two no longer had interest and the other was in a cap crunch.
“If Tyler Johnson is on my team to start the year, I think that’s a good thing, because Tyler Johnson is a good player. He’s going to help us win hockey games, and ultimately that’s what I want to do,” BriseBois said. “The reality is not that long ago he scored 27 even-strength goals in a single season. He just won the Stanley Cup playing on the second line of our team.”
Though losing Kucherov is devastating to the Lightning — the 27-year-old Russian won the Art Ross Trophy and Hart Trophy (league MVP) for the 2018-19 season after leading the league with 128 points — BriseBois expects captain Steven Stamkos to be ready for the start of the season, and the core from last year’s Cup-winning team returns.
Stamkos is recovering from two core muscle surgeries this year and missed all but one game of the playoffs.
“Teams lose high-end players every year,” BriseBois said. “It’s part of the challenge of winning at the NHL level. … It wasn’t going to be easy even with ‘Kuch’ in the lineup, and now it’s more of a challenge.
“But from my conversation with a number of our players over the last few days — although it wasn’t official at the time that ‘Kuch’ was going to be missing the regular season — the mindset of the players as a whole and the hunger and how excited they are to get a chance to chase another Cup and go back-to-back … I’ve just been really, really struck by how positive everyone’s mindset is.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com. Follow @EddieInTheYard.
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