When John Tavares signed his six-year deal with the New York Islanders in 2012, he took at least a couple of months to render it a bad move. He has nothing on Nikita Kucherov of the Tampa Bay Lightning, who has yet to collect a penny on his eight-year, $76 million extension and is already being underpaid.
Before we go any further, a little perspective here. It’s tough to argue that anyone who essentially doubles his salary and will earn between $7 million and $12 million each of the next eight years is getting ripped off. And that $11 million signing bonus he negotiated for Year 1 of the contract is probably going to feel pretty good in his jeans pocket July 1. But just imagine, for a minute, what Kucherov would be worth at the moment if he were facing just one more year of restricted free agency with arbitration rights, then were able to take his talents to the open market.
Well, what would the Lightning have been willing to pay for a guy who wins both the Art Ross and Hart Trophies, captures a Stanley Cup and establishes himself as one of the best players on the planet one year before becoming a commodity on the open market? What would another team have been willing to give him on an offer sheet? He’s on a ridiculous scoring binge, on pace to register 96 assists and 135 points this season. To put that into perspective, the only players who have scored more points than that over the past 25 years are Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr, who did it during the 1995-96 season. The only player to have that many assists was Joe Thornton, who registered 96 in the 2005-06 season. It’s interesting to note that the Lemieux and Jagr totals were accrued just before The Dead Puck Era™ and the Thornton assist mark was set just after. That’s the kind of production we’re talking about here.
As it stands right now, Kucherov will be tied for the 12th highest cap hit in the NHL when his extension kicks in next season. Any way you slice it, that’s obscenely low and a clear win for the Lightning, who retain one of the best players in the game and still have room to keep their Stanley Cup-caliber roster together. Of those players, all of Drew Doughty, Tavares, Jonathan Toews, Carey Price, Patrick Kane, Anze Kopitar, Tyler Seguin and Alex Ovechkin will be older than Kucherov.
When Kucherov signed his extension last summer, it was seen as a great move for both him and the organization. Kucherov got the security of an eight-year deal and the comfort of knowing he’d be in the same place for a long time, while the Lightning got a lot of certainty of the own. “I’m truly grateful to sign this contract,” Kucherov said July 10, the day he inked the extension. Steve Yzerman, who orchestrated the deal from the Lightning’s side of things, probably felt the same way.
It’s would be impossible to find out exactly how Kucherov would feel about all this. Watch the guy after he scores a goal. He barely celebrates or even cracks a smile. Chances are none of this is important to him. He got the security he wanted last summer and will still be paid a ridiculous amount of money to play a game. So what if he’s pulling down, on average, $3.5 million a year less than Connor McDavid? And it should also be noted that $9.5 million in Florida goes a lot further than the same amount in Alberta, New York or California.
But consider this. Kucherov came into the NHL as a second-round pick, despite leading the World Under-18 Championship in scoring with 21 points in seven games and helping Russia to a bronze medal. It was largely because teams were reticent about taking Russian players because they had no idea when, if ever, they’d appear in North America. So Kucherov got a three-year entry-level deal that paid him just $215,000 in performance bonuses on salaries of $600,000, $650,000 and $700,000. Hugely underpaid. Then he signed a three-year bridge deal that paid him an average of $4.8 million per year. Again, hugely underpaid.
Well, it looks very much as though Kucherov has made it a rare trifecta with this contract, meaning he could very well put together a Hall of Fame career in which he was underpaid for most, if not, all of it. But then again, because of what he’s done, he could have a couple of Stanley Cup rings, along with his money, to help keep him warm at night.