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Kucherov inks team-friendly three-year, $14.3-million bridge deal with Lightning

Lightning GM Steve Yzerman has found a way to keep the Triplets together without making a trade or breaking the bank, signing Nikita Kucherov to a three-year bridge deal that pays $4.766-million per season.

Only 20 players have put up more points over the past two seasons than Tampa Bay Lightning winger Nikita Kucherov, and given the 23-year-old’s raw scoring ability and playoff performances over the past two campaigns, it was believed he was in line for a massive off-season raise.

Instead, with two days to go before the Lightning open their 2016-17 campaign, Kucherov and Tampa Bay have come to terms on a short-term bridge deal that will pay $4.766-million per season.

While that’s still a raise of more than $4 million per season, it’s a far cry from the $8.5 million per season that Steven Stamkos landed on an eight-year deal in late-June and it’s even less than the $6.75-million per season Johnny Gaudreau got from the Calgary Flames on what is considered to be an incredibly team-friendly six-year contract. It would have been reasonable to expect Kucherov to earn somewhere in the $7-million range on a new contract, so to say this is a great deal for the Lightning would be an understatement.

Since the start of the 2014-15 campaign, the only player in the Lightning lineup who has been a more effective scorer is Stamkos, and that’s by a fairly narrow margin. In 159 games over the past two seasons, Kucherov has 59 goals and 131 points, and Stamkos barely edges Kucherov out with 79 goals and 136 points to his name. But it’s in the post-season where Kucherov has shown the ability to take his game to another level.

In 43 playoff games over the past two seasons, Kucherov has 21 goals and 41 points, making him the highest scoring player from any club over that span. Other players may have similar points paces, but none has accomplished quite what Kucherov during two consecutive runs to the Eastern Conference final, which includes a Stanley Cup final appearance in 2014-15.

There’s one clearcut reason why Kucherov didn’t get his massive payday, however: it simply wasn’t a possibility for the Lightning.

With the aforementioned Stamkos signing, there wasn’t the cap space to retain Kucherov if he wanted to sign a deal in the $7-million range. Tampa Bay had less than $6 million in cap space, per CapFriendly, and there was no clearcut way for the Lightning to make more room barring a deal that shipped out a high-priced veteran or sent star goaltender Ben Bishop, a free agent next off-season, elsewhere. With no trade made, though, the Lightning had to figure out a way to get the contract signed. Making it a bridge deal instead of the long-term deal most would have expected solved that.

Inking Kucherov to such a deal doesn’t just help the Lightning this season, though, and it really could help GM Steve Yzerman keep his team among the league’s best for the foreseeable future.

Victor Hedman’s contract extension is set to kick in next season and with the impending free agency of Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Jonathan Drouin, the Lightning are in a difficult cap situation and have some tough waters to navigate. Kucherov was one piece, but Tampa Bay has to somehow manage to sign its major free agents — most of which are RFAs — with limited cap space. Getting Kucherov to agree to something short-term with a relatively low cap hit for a player of his calibre helps that situation, especially given bridge deals aren’t a realistic possibility for Johnson, 26, and Palat, 25.

But while this deal is good for the Lightning right now, it could result in an even bigger payday for Kucherov down the line. It’s a gamble, and Kucherov is betting on himself.

That said, if the Russian winger can continue to be one of the league’s premier goal scorers over the lifespan of his three-year contract and continue to run neck-and-neck with Stamkos for the team scoring lead, there’s no reason he won’t be getting an $8-million-plus deal when his bridge deal comes up. It won’t be as team-friendly, sure, but Kucherov would then be getting paid what he’s really worth.

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