While the hockey world was busy being obsessed with whether or not Steve Yzerman could swing for the fences and win the Erik Karlsson Sweepstakes, the Tampa Bay Lightning GM was busy quietly preventing a Nikita Kucherov Sweepstakes from even reaching the embryonic stage.
That’s so Yzerman. With a year left on Kucherov’s deal and another where he would have been a restricted free agent with arbitration rights, it didn’t seem like there was much urgency to come to a contract extension this summer, particularly with the Lightning in the middle of the complicated deal to get a superstar defenseman. But instead of being singularly focused on Karlsson, Yzerman called Kucherov’s agent Dan Milstein one week ago today and suggested they start negotiating an extension. They met at Milstein’s home in the Detroit suburbs and came to a deal rather quickly, one that was the richest in Lightning history and will keep the 100-point man in Tampa through 2026-27 on an annual cap hit of $9.5 million.
It’s a great deal from a number of perspectives. First, it takes the heat off everyone and allows Kucherov to do what he does best, which is play hockey. It takes Kucherov off the unrestricted free agent market two years early and ties up the organization’s best player through what the Lightning hope are the most productive seasons of his career. Kucherov wanted to stay in Tampa and the Lightning want him there.
“Leaving Tampa was never an option,” Milstein said.
The deal came together rather quickly. Yzerman and Milstein spoke for a couple of hours last Wednesday and continued their dialogue through the weekend and the two sides reached a deal late Sunday night. Milstein and Kucherov celebrated the deal over dinner over sparkling water in Tampa Monday night and delivered the signed contract to the Lightning’s office Tuesday morning. Then Kucherov jumped on the ice for a 90-minute skills session with his personal coach, former Lightning player Dmitry Afanasenkov, before hitting the gym with Afanasenkov for another 90 minutes.
“He only took two weeks off this year,” Milstein said. “And he’s celebrating his contract by working hard.”
Now amid reports that the Dallas Stars have once again emerged as frontrunners for Karlsson, Yzerman will now turn his attention to that possible transaction. Although it’s very difficult to know where things stand on the Karlsson front because there has been so much misinformation out there. But one thing is certain, any Karlsson deal involving the Lightning would not have had a bearing on the organization’s intention to re-sign Kucherov. The two transactions would be mutually exclusive.
If the Lightning – who already have $65.8 million in cap space spoken for in 2019-20, the first season the Kucherov deal kicks in – are going to have to move bodies to make room for Karlsson, Kucherov was never going to be one of them. Because bringing in a star defenseman such as Karlsson and taking away one of his prime options to move the puck up the ice to would have made almost no sense for the Lightning. If the Lightning are going to make this work, they’re almost certainly going to be moving out other players such as Tyler Johnson. And perhaps this means Yanni Gourde, who had a splendid rookie season and could emerge as another offensive threat for the Lightning, has to be allowed to walk if he gets to unrestricted free agency after next season. The Lightning have some promising forwards on the way in the form of Anthony Cirelli, Mathieu Joseph, Boris Katchouk and Taylor Raddysh working their way through the system and they will be counted upon to provide the Lightning with impactful contributions while playing on relatively inexpensive entry-level deals.
And that’s the way this is all supposed to work. You draft and develop really good players, the way the Lightning did with Kucherov. You supplement them with other players you’ve brought along and continue the cycle by surrounding your highly paid superstars with players who can come into the NHL and fill the roles that are needed to be a contending team. The Lightning are in the midst of that cycle right now and with their roster manipulations, have cemented their status as serious Stanley Cup contenders for years to come.
And by this time next summer, Yzerman will find himself in precisely the same situation he did with Kucherov with goaltender Andrei Vasilevsky, who will enter 2019-20 the same age as Kucherov with one year left on his deal and an additional year with arbitration rights before becoming a UFA. That will be a challenge, particularly if Vasilevskiy has a season as good or better than the one he had in 2017-18, but Yzerman will almost certainly find a way to make it work. He always does.
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