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Kucherov only Lightning RFA remaining after Nesterov signs one-year deal

The Lightning finally reached a deal with restricted free agent Nikita Nesterov, and he has a chance to play a bigger role in Tampa Bay, especially if signing other top RFA Nikita Kucherov forces the Lightning to move a defenseman.

Nikita Nesterov went the entire World Cup without a contract from the Tampa Bay Lightning, but all it took was a few days back in Florida and away from duty with Team Russia to come to terms on a new deal.

The Lightning announced Monday that Nesterov, 23, will be back with the club in 2016-17 on a one-year, $725,000 deal. Nesterov is coming off of his career-best year, though that’s not exactly saying much for a youngster who has played a mere 84 games over the past two seasons. In 2015-16, he played in 57 games and averaged nearly 15 minutes in ice time on the Lightning blueline, setting career-highs with three goals, six assists and nine points.

While his offensive totals and limited minutes may not be the most inspiring, there’s a chance this season can be a big one for Nesterov. With Tampa Bay likely in need of some cheap replacements in the lineup, it could be exactly the type of deal that helps facilitate a roster spot for Nesterov and offers him a shot at making an impact with the Lightning this season.

Following Nesterov’s signing, Tampa Bay now has little more than $5.5 million in cap space, according to CapFriendly, and that’s not going to be near enough for the Lightning to ink top restricted free agent Nikita Kucherov.

Kucherov, 23, could realistically be line to make upwards of $7 million on a new deal, and keeping him on the roster, as well as looking ahead to key free agent signings that need to be taken care of ahead of or during next off-season, is going to take some clever financial work by Lightning GM Steve Yzerman. 

One of the possibilities for the Lightning is shipping out some of the help they have on the back end, especially a high-priced veteran such as Jason Garrison or Braydon Coburn. Both carry no-trade clauses and both still have their place on the Lightning blueline, but moving either would be a big help in creating cap space to keep the top offensive talent around.

Garrison, 31, will be the highest paid defenseman in Tampa Bay this coming campaign at $4.6 million, but he has arguably slipped into fourth on the Lightning depth chart behind Victor Hedman, Anton Stralman and Andrej Sustr. The same goes for Coburn, 31, who is set to be the fourth-highest paid blueliner on the roster this coming season at $3.7 million. Coburn will likely be a fourth or fifth defenseman in Tampa Bay in 2016-17, and moving him out could be one way to free up room for Kucherov.

In freeing up space for Kucherov, though, the Lightning could potentially open up a spot for Nesterov to move up the lineup. 

While his 14:53 average ice time doesn’t necessarily point to a player who has the trust of the coaching staff, the fact is Nesterov was stuck behind veterans on the blueline this past season. During his rookie year, he skated more than 16 minutes per game and appeared in 17 post-season games as the Lightning marched to an Eastern Conference title and Stanley Cup final appearance. He’s capable of bigger minutes, and this could be a year where he shows more growth.

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