Nikita Kucherov got a crash-course on the cold world of North American hockey when he first came over to play junior and he may be set up to feel the pinch again now.
As a 19-year-old, Kucherov left CSKA Moscow in Russia for the QMJHL’s Quebec Remparts. But the Remparts already had the maximum two imports in Nick Sorensen and Mikhail Grigorenko. And when Grigorenko was punted back to junior by the Buffalo Sabres, Quebec was forced to trade Kucherov to Rouyn-Noranda. He thrived there, but it wasn’t an optimal situation for a kid who just got here.
Now 23 and a rising NHL star, Kucherov is facing another round of musical chairs. Actually, this game might be more akin to Monopoly – because it’s also about money.
After a wild summer, Tampa Bay GM Steve Yzerman has locked down his entire enviable core. Everyone except Kucherov, that is. The right winger needs a new contract and the Lightning has very little cap room left for him.
On the open market, Kucherov would get bank. He led Tampa Bay in scoring this past season – and there’s a lot of offensive power on that squad. He also led the team in playoff scoring and is quickly developing a clutch reputation. So he’s probably worth at least $6.5 million, maybe even $7 million. But the Bolts don’t really have that right now. As beat reporter Joe Smith notes, Tampa Bay probably only has about $5 million to play with once you factor in defenseman Nikita Nesterov and/or Slater Koekkoek.
And a bridge deal – which would see Kucherov follow in the footsteps of fellow Triplets linemates Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat – doesn’t really help either, because of his two buddies. See, Johnson and Palat’s bridge deals end next summer and both of them are worth at least $5 million each, too. Jonathan Drouin comes up that summer too and he won’t come cheap if he keeps up his ascent.
Which puts Kucherov and Yzerman in tough spots. The right winger either settles for a long-term deal that pays him less than he’s worth, or a bridge deal that pays him slightly less than he’s worth, but puts him back in the same boat two years from now.
Two players that could help Kucherov’s cause? Alex Killorn and Ben Bishop.
Killorn and Victor Hedman are the only Tampa Bay players slated to make $4 million or more for 2016-17 that do not have no-movement or no-trade clauses. Hedman’s $7.8 million cap hit kicks in next season and has protection in that regard (and they’re not trading the big D-man).
So Killorn could be traded, adding $4.4 million in cap space, which could in turn be used on Kucherov. That’s a bummer for Killorn, who has carved out a pretty good niche for himself on the team, but business is business in the cap world.
Bishop would help in the long-term. He won’t be traded right away and perhaps not at all, as Yzerman had recently noted. Though the star goalie has Andrei Vasilevskiy pushing him, the Bolts could keep Bishop all year and let him walk via unrestricted free agency in the summer. By then, Yzerman no doubt hopes his team has a Stanley Cup parade to plan and all is well in the Lightning’s world.
With Bishop off the books, Tampa Bay saves about $5 million, assuming his replacement is a cheap backup for Vasilevskiy. Again, that doesn’t help Kucherov in the short-term, but may in the long-term if he does decide to go bridge.
The X-factor is if Yzerman can convince a player or two to waive their no-trade clauses – a tough sell, given that Tampa Bay is our favorite to win the Stanley Cup.
Whatever happens, it’s going to take a delicate touch.