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Lightning had the hammer and used it with Nikita Kucherov

In the end, Nikita Kucherov had little choice but to sign a three-year bridge deal with the Lightning, but he won't be so charitable next time around.

There will undoubtedly be a number of observers who look at Nikita Kucherov’s three-year deal with the Tampa Bay Lightning and wonder how he could possibly get fleeced so badly. It’s a valid question. A 30-goal scorer who shows no signs of slowing down signs a three-year deal that will pay him just $4.766 million per year? It would be hard to find anyone who would not acknowledge that number is way below market value.

But if you dig a little more deeply, and realize that this deal has more moving parts than an aircraft carrier, you begin to realize that Kucherov really had little choice. As a restricted free agent with no arbitration rights and no offer sheet imminent – because the NHL essentially colludes to keep young players from getting them – Kucherov was faced with one of three choices, none of which gave him much leverage.

The first would have been to dig in and hold his ground on his demands and vow to never play for less than market value. Considering Vladimir Tarasenko is making $7.5 million and Johnny GaudreauJ $6.75 million on long-term deals, it’s certainly not a stretch to suggest that Kucherov would have been worth north of $6 million per year on a long-term deal. The problem there, though, is you have to deal in reality. And the reality is that cap room simply was not available in Tampa Bay. Full stop. Kucherov was not going to get a penny more than he got. And combine that with the fact that he has the (relative) misfortune of playing for a GM who simply refuses to blink in negotiations. You get the sense that if Kucherov had threatened to sit out forever, that’s how long Steve Yzerman would have waited.

And even if Yzerman had relented and signed Kucherov to market value, that would have forced him to trade a roster player off a team that has a legitimate chance to win the Stanley Cup, perhaps as early as this spring. Kucherov did not want to do that. The optics aren’t great and most players are driven by a desire to win. So the next time a hockey xenophobe, let’s say one you might see on TV a lot – tries to tell you Russians are greedy and have no interest in winning the Stanley Cup, think about Kucherov’s contract.

His second option would be to take the security of a long-term deal that would grossly underpay him, probably for the entire term of the contract. Then what you have is the John Tavares situation, one for which the New York Islanders will have to pay dearly if they have any designs on keeping their captain and best player beyond the end of next season.

Kucherov’s third option was the one he chose – a bridge deal that pays him below market value. The reason for that is the Lightning were not getting any years of unrestricted free agency - unlike the St. Louis Blues with Tarasenko and the Calgary Flames with Gaudreau. Kucherov essentially gambled on himself, confident that he’ll put up the kind of numbers in the next couple of years that will command both huge money and term on his next deal. And while the Lightning might be doing a happy dance today over this deal, there is no way Kucherov is going to be near as charitable the next time around.

That’s because, unlike this off-season, Kucherov will have all the leverage. When this deal expires, he’ll have arbitration rights and will be one year away from unrestricted free agency. So he either takes a one-year deal in arbitration and waits for the offers to pour in after that or the Lightning sign him to a long-term deal. And remember, this deal is a three-year deal, but it is actually only a two-year deal in many ways. After two years, the Lightning will have the ability to sign him to a long-term extension, which would kick in for the 2019-20 season. And a lot can change before then.

So let’s assume Kucherov continues his trajectory as a player and becomes one of the league’s elite offensive producers in the next two seasons. Then he gets his deal from the Lightning two years from now or from someone else three years from now. That means he’ll get both his term and his money prior to the 2020-21 season, which will be the first season the NHL has the opportunity to have the collective bargaining agreement expire. Failing that, it will expire after the 2021-22 season. And you can bet the NHL will almost certainly close down the league, as it has three times already, and will be targeting term limits in the next deal. They got them down to eight this time and they’ll be shooting for five next time around.

You can bet in his new deal, Kucherov will be getting a lot of signing bonus money in those two seasons to give him potential lockout protection. All of this is assuming Kucherov continues to be an elite player in the NHL, something he took another step toward doing when he signed his deal with the Lightning in order to start the regular season with them Thursday night. Kucherov will get the deal then that he didn’t get now. These things are all about leverage and it will shift to Kucherov big-time in the next couple of seasons.



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