Lightning winger Nikita Kucherov has established himself as one of the brighter young stars in the game, and his 59 goals over the past two campaigns with the Lightning have him in line for a sizeable raise as a restricted free agent.
However, as the season draws nearer, the Lightning and Kucherov have yet to agree to terms. With Tampa Bay in an unenviable cap situation with a number of impressive young talents due for new deals soon, signing Kucherov has become difficult as he looks set to earn $6 million-plus on a new deal.
Thankfully for Tampa Bay and GM Steve Yzerman, Kucherov appears willing to continue negotiating until the two sides reach a deal. Other GMs watching Yzerman’s negotiation with Kucherov shouldn’t take the Russian sniper’s patience for granted, though. That’s especially true for Washington Capitals GM Brian MacLellan.
By the sounds of things, MacLellan is going to have a big task on his hands this coming campaign and as next off-season approaches. Burgeoning star Evgeny Kuznetsov will be a restricted free agent, just like Kucherov, come the end of the 2016-17 campaign, and the 24-year-old said he wouldn’t put up with the lengthy negotiation Kucherov has gone through.
"If I would be in (Kucherov’s) position, I would be signed in the KHL for sure...I would sign and say bye,” Kuznetsov said, according to ESPN’s Craig Custance. “That’s me. I would buy a beach house and a couple Rolls-Royces."
Call it what you will — just talk, a bargaining tactic or not-so-subtle hint — but Kuznetsov’s comments have to be, at the very least, somewhat worrying for the Capitals as he enters the final season of his current deal. It’s all the more worrisome, though, given Kuznetsov could be in line for a Kucherov-type raise come the end of the campaign and have some serious bargaining power.
Kuznetsov’s 20-goal, 77-point output this past campaign was the 10th best offensive season of any player in the league, and there’s no indication that Kuznetsov will be slowing down his offensive contributions anytime soon. If he repeats that performance, he’ll have all but secured his right to earning in the $6-million range.
But regardless of what Kuznetsov might be in line for, it’s worth noting that the Capitals haven’t been a team that’s bent much when it comes to RFA negotiations. Defenseman Dmitry Orlov, a Team Russia teammate of Kuznetsov and Kucherov at the World Cup, still has yet to ink a new deal and it doesn’t seem negotiations are that close to reaching a conclusion. Marcus Johansson has gone to arbitration for two consecutive seasons. Goaltender Braden Holtby signed his five-year, $30.5-million deal after going through arbitration with the Capitals.
The good thing for Washington, though, is that arbitration happens much earlier in the summer. If the only way to get Kuznetsov locked up is to head to arbitration with him, so be it, but that’s not an ideal situation. They’d much rather get Kuznetsov inked without the drama of a hearing and the potential for him to become unhappy with his stay in Washington.
The one big positive for MacLellan and Co. is that they’ll have roughly $23 million in cap space to make the signing work. That’s more than enough to sign Kuznetsov, but the Capitals will need to be wary of overpaying because there are a number of negotiations to take care of this coming off-season.
All told, 10 current roster players will become reach UFA or RFA status come July 1, 2017, and almost every single one of those players has become an important cog in the Capitals lineup. T.J. Oshie, Justin Williams and defenseman Karl Alzner will become UFAs, and the RFA list includes Kuznetsov, Andre Burakovsky, Stanislav Galiev, Nate Schmidt and backup netminder Philipp Grubauer.
Signing Kuznetsov was already going to be one of the most defining moments of MacLellan’s tenure as Capitals GM, but the young Capitals star’s comments make it all the more important that MacLellan figures out a way to get the deal done without the process getting too drawn out. Washington won’t care if Kuznetsov is heading to his beach house in a Rolls-Royce, so long as he’s doing it as a Capital.
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