Athletes talk. It’s part of their job. But it’s rare they really say all that much. That’s true for just about every sport, but it seems to ring especially true in hockey, where all too often the players are tight-lipped and have a cliche at the ready for every question. That’s why it’s always somewhat shocking when any player offers some real, honest-to-goodness criticism of his play or the play of his team. So, when Nikita Kucherov spoke up about the Lightning’s shortcomings this past season, it was hard for one’s ears not to perk up.
In a recent interview with Sovetsky Sport’s Pavel Lysenkov, Kucherov was asked about Tampa Bay falling short this past season, a year in which the team was supposed to make a serious run for the Stanley Cup but failed to even earn a playoff berth. And while Kucherov didn’t name names, but he sure didn’t hold back when making his point that it seemed as though one or two players quit on the season.
“Some guys overstayed in team. They’ve got their money and stopped working,” Kucherov said, as translated by NHL.com’s Sergey Demidov. “They knew there’s no competition for their positions and organization is not going to take someone else…They played not really well this year — you can see it in their stats and way of play. When we played together and I made a pass, they even were not expecting this. That’s why this season was hard (for) me despite good stats.”
As far as critiquing one’s own team goes, Kucherov’s comments are about as honest as they come. There’s no knowing who exactly Kucherov is pointing to with his words. He could be talking about anyone on the roster who has received a deal in recent years or any number of Lightning players who underperformed this past season. The most obvious assumption, however, would be that he’s talking about Alex Killorn, who signed a seven-year, $31.15-million contract in the off-season, but it’s worth noting that Killorn had a career year in the goals column. He potted 19 tallies, although his 36 points were the worst full-season total of his career. That’s only speculation, though, as Kucherov didn’t say who exactly “got their money and stopped working.”
Shortly after Kucherov’s comments went public and made the rounds, his agent was attempting to douse the fire. Kucherov, through agent Dan Milstein, told the Tampa Bay Times’ Joe Smith that his words had only come out of frustration in missing the post-season, though he did add that he felt that not “every player (was) on board to win.”
Kucherov absolutely has a right to be frustrated, too. At times this season, he and defenseman Victor Hedman were almost singlehandedly attempting to drive the Lightning to the post-season. Consider that from New Year’s Day onward, Kucherov had the fifth-most points of any player, scoring 27 goals and 50 points in 43 games. When the campaign ended, only four players had put up more points than Kucherov’s 85, and after 59 goals over his past two seasons, the Lightning winger reached new heights. In the penultimate game of the season, he scored his 40th goal of the campaign. Sidney Crosby was the only player with more goals, and Kucherov tied Auston Matthews as the only other players to reach 40 tallies.
But maybe Kucherov’s words are indicative of something more than his own frustration and maybe it’s a sign that something more needs to change. With or without Steven Stamkos, who missed the majority of the season with a knee injury, the Lightning’s season should have been more successful. This is a roster that has succeeded without their captain before and there was no reason it shouldn’t have been that way once again. Given that’s the case, could there conceivably be an argument that Lightning GM Steve Yzerman could use his team’s lack of success to shake up this roster?
That isn’t exactly a novel idea, to be sure, especially as Tampa Bay faces an off-season of some uncertainty with a tight salary cap situation and some key players to re-sign. But the expectation has been that Yzerman, who’s shown some management wizardry in the past, would somehow be able to make things work to keep restricted free agents Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Jonathan Drouin in town while also managing to add on the backend, something that reportedly became one of Yzerman’s desires as the season wore on.
The best move Yzerman could make would be shipping out Killorn, and that has absolutely nothing to do with Kucherov speaking out. The fact of the matter is Killorn simply makes too much for what he’s able to produce, especially on a team that is about to be in a cap crunch with three bonafide top-six players up for new deals. However, moving Killorn isn’t exactly going to be easy. It wouldn’t be easy if Killorn had his $4.45-million cap hit on, say, a three-year deal, so it’s definitely a tall task with six years remaining on the contract. That doesn’t rule out creating a package to move out Killorn and his contract — think the Chicago Blackhawks’ deal that sent Teuvo Teravainen and Bryan Bickell to the Carolina Hurricanes — but, even still, the term left on the deal is going to make it tough.
Likewise, shipping out Jason Garrison would be hugely beneficial, as the soon-to-be 33-year-old rearguard is earning too much — $4.6 million next season — to be on the Lightning’s second pairing at this point. As with Killorn, though, Yzerman will probably have a tough time finding any takers for Garrison without sweetening the pot. Repeat the above for Brayden Coburn, who’s earning $3.7 million for the next two seasons. The one thing Yzerman does have in his back pocket is a decent stock of prospects, so adding picks to deals might be enough to move a contract or two.
But the clearest way to shake things up, rejuvenate this squad in the summer and clear up some cap space — not to mention make things interesting — would be for Yzerman to ship out one of his three, big-name RFAs. Some would suggest that means moving Jonathan Drouin, which is something that has long been talked about and reportedly almost happened around the trade deadline in a deal that would have brought Kevin Shattenkirk to Tampa Bay. However, if the Lightning were going to make a move, wouldn’t it make more sense to move out one of Palat or Johnson?
While Drouin is a different player, a more offensive-minded one with less two-way acumen than either of Palat or Johnson, there’s an interesting catch when it comes to his contract status. As he heads into the off-season looking for a new deal, Drouin will be without arbitration rights. The same can’t be said for Palat or Johnson, and that could make both of their deals, paired with past performance, that much more costly than Drouin’s. That’s not to mention we saw what Yzerman can do when a player doesn’t have arbitration rights this past summer, as Kucherov inked a ridiculously team friendly three-year deal worth $4.77 million per season. Is anyone ruling out Yzerman pulling off a similar pact with Drouin?
With that in mind, shipping out one of Palat or Johnson makes that much more sense. If that’s the case, maybe Johnson is the one to go. As a center, Johnson will probably be the better trade chip and fetch a better return, especially with his ability at both ends of the ice. And it’s not as if that type of player is completely lost if it’s Palat who sticks around. Palat has received Selke Trophy votes for his defensive skill, including enough to finish in ninth place (one spot behind Johnson) in 2014-15. Yes, Palat’s a winger, but a savvy two-way one and a player who can be defensively responsible if he’s thrown out on a line with, say, Drouin and a younger center such as Brayden Point.
However, as some will be quick to point out, Drouin’s history might still make him the one to go. Who knows how much the wounds have healed after Drouin left the team and demanded a trade during a dispute over playing time and an AHL demotion. We’re only little more than one year removed from that saga coming to an end.
No matter what Yzerman does, the Lightning roster is sure to look at least a little different come next season. And maybe with that in mind, and following Kucherov’s comments, Yzerman gives some thought to shaking up his roster, even if only slightly, to see if he can ice a team that will meet what are sure to be big expectations next season.
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