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Kucherov can’t stop scoring and it’s only driving his price tag even higher

Nikita Kucherov is arguably the most underpaid player in the entire NHL, but that's not going to last much longer.

Barring all entry-level deals, is there really any debating Nikita Kucherov is the best value contract in the NHL right now?

Ahead of last season, and following 211 games, 68 goals and 149 points, Lightning GM Steve Yzerman was able to leverage Kucherov’s restricted free agent status — and, frankly, his lack of bargaining power — to get the Russian winger locked up to a three-year, $14.3-million deal that looked like a steal before the ink was even dry. It’s been exactly that, too.

Last season, with 85 points, Kucherov found the scoresheet once for every $56,000 or so he was paid. With 10 points already to start this season, he’s on pace for a 100-plus point campaign that would see each point cost the Lightning somewhere in the $46,000 range. And it should come as no surprise that almost from the moment Kucherov put pen to paper on the pact, all he’s done is power the Tampa Bay offense. The numbers tell the story, too.

Since the start of the 2016-17 campaign, Kucherov has played 80 games, missing a handful due to injury along the way, and it could be argued that there has only been one or two players who have been as dynamic over that span – and it’s a veritable who’s who of the annual Art Ross Trophy races. Among those who lead Kucherov in scoring over the past season-plus are Connor McDavid, Patrick Kane, Sidney Crosby and Nicklas Backstrom. That’s it. That’s the entire list. Only four players in 80-plus games have outproduced Kucherov, who has a stellar 95 points in his past 80 contests.

Not only has Kucherov found the scoresheet, though, he’s lit the lamp at a torrid pace. Last season, he was one of three players, along with Crosby and Auston Matthews, to hit the 40-goal plateau. In fact, Kucherov’s 47 goals over his past 80 games ties him with Crosby for the most in the league while putting the 24-year-old winger ahead of the likes of Vladimir Tarasenko, Alex Ovechkin and Patrik Laine, each of whom are considered among the league’s preeminent goal-scorers.

But the Lightning better enjoy this Kucherov deal while it lasts. There’s little doubt that come July 1, when the Lightning and Kucherov can go back to the table and start talking extension, there’s going to be work done on getting a long-term pact in place. Chances are Kucherov becomes the highest-paid player in Tampa Bay when that new deal kicks in, too.

That’s not all that bold a suggestion, truthfully, because there’s very little reason to believe Kucherov should be anything but. Some will argue that the benchmarks for the Lightning should already be set and that they’ve been put in place by Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman, who earn $8.5 million and $7.875 million per season, respectively. That argument does carry some weight, too. Stamkos is the Lightning captain and their franchise player. He’s helped lead the team to an Eastern Conference championship and Stanley Cup final, has won two Rocket Richard Trophies in Tampa Bay and, when healthy, is one of the most electrifying scorers in the league. Hedman, meanwhile, is entering into his prime as a perennial Norris Trophy contender. But the reality is the bar has moved and Kucherov’s value — at least in dollars-and-cents terms — is greater than ever before.

Reason being, as it is for all free agents who are set to sign new deals in the not-too-distant future, is that the price tage has gone up thanks to the likes of Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Jack Eichel. The trio of restricted free agents, all 21 or younger, have signed massive deals over the past several months that has created a new reality for top-end young players. McDavid first set the bar with his eight-year, $100-million contract, a deal that gives him an average salary of $12.5 million, and was followed by Draisaitl’s eight-year pact that pays $8.5 million annually and Eichel’s $10-million yearly cap hit on his new eight-year deal. And going solely off of those contracts, it’d be safe enough to assume that Kucherov, who has bested all but McDavid in scoring, is in line for a deal that is at the very least commensurate with the top young earners.

What makes it all but certain Kucherov is going to be paid more than $8.5 million per season, though, is that unlike last time he went looking for a new deal, he has leverage. While still a restricted free agent, Kucherov will be eligible for arbitration when his current deal is up and his asking price, were he to get that far, would surely be significant, possibly even eight figures. Far-fetched? Not particularly, considering Eichel had 48 career goals when he signed for $80 million over eight years.

And even if Yzerman and the Lightning want to play hardball and assert that Kucherov shouldn’t be paid more than Stamkos, the current top earner in Tampa Bay, it would be easy enough for Kucherov and his camp to point to simple cap percentages. Times change and so does the upper limit, and when Stamkos signed his eight-year, $68-million deal, he was signing for 11.64 percent of the Lightning’s total spending limit. A similar percentage with today’s cap would put Kucherov at $8.73 million per season, and if the cap goes up to, say, $80 million, a contract eating up a similar percentage of the upper limit would pay roughly $9.3 million.

It’s hard to fathom it gets that far, though. The Lightning know they have one of the game’s top offensive talents in Kucherov. And in two seasons' time, you can count on Tampa Bay paying him as such.

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