The Tampa Bay Lightning had one piece of unfinished business heading into the 2016-17 season. It was a pretty big one, too, as restricted free agent Nikita Kucherov, who led the team in scoring last season and was one a top postseason performer, did not yet have a new contract. That changed Tuesday.
The club announced that Kucherov has been signed to a three-year deal worth just shy of $14.3 million. The $4,766,666 cap hit is extremely team friendly, as is the term. Kucherov will remain a restricted free agent when this new contract expires. While he will be arbitration eligible then, he remains under team control instead of the team risking losing him to unrestricted free agency. The term and the cost are both hugely beneficial to the Lightning.
This offseason was always going to be difficult for Lightning GM Steve Yzerman, due to the number of contracts he had to get done with core players. But once again Yzerman has shown himself to be extremely crafty in making all of this work.
To recap Yzerman's offseason, he prevented captain and all-star sniper Steven Stamkos from leaving in free agency with an eight-year, $68 million contract. Then he got top defenseman Victor Hedman to sign an eight-year, $63 million extension that kicks in after this season. Additionally, goalie of the future Andrei Vasilevskiy signed a three-year extension, forward Vladislav Namestnikov agreed to a cheap bridge deal and veteran winger Alex Killorn inked a seven-year deal worth $31.15 million. That's a pretty impressive summer, especially when you consider the very real possibility of losing multiple core players to free agency or trades.
After reaching the Stanley Cup Final in 2015 and a second straight Eastern Conference finals in 2016, the Lightning remain very much within their Stanley Cup window. There are still difficult decisions to be made, like what to do with veteran goalie Ben Bishop who is on the last year of his contract. Also top-six forwards Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson will be due new contracts after this season, though both will be restricted free agents. But the team is set for right now and it looks just as threatening on paper this season as it did following its two lengthy playoff runs.
There are going to be some changes over the next few years, but having Kucherov under team control for the next three years on an extremely team-friendly deal helps set the table for the Bolts to keep their core together for perhaps even longer than initially expected. Additionally, when Kucherov's contract expires in three years, there will be big contracts off the books, paving the way for a bigger payday for the Russian sniper.
Over the last two seasons in particular, Kucherov has emerged as a crucial forward to this team's offensive attack. He put up 29 goals and 65 points in 2014-15 before bettering those totals by one the following year. He led the Lightning with 30 goals and 66 points last season. He has really come alive during the playoffs, however.
During the Lightning's Stanley Cup Final run in 2015, Kucherov had 22 points in 26 games, including 10 goals. He scored at an even higher rate last postseason, as he scored 11 goals and put up 19 points in just 17 games.
Meanwhile, Kucherov just turned 23 years old in June. He's in the midst of what should be his prime scoring years and the Lightning will be getting that kind of production at a discount.
Kucherov could have reasonably commanded deals similar to that of other RFAs this year. For instance, over the last two season, Kucherov has out-produced Filip Forsberg, Sean Monahan and Mark Scheifele, each of whom signed long-term contracts worth more than $6 million per season. However, the Lightning's salary cap situation didn't leave much room to get him terribly close to those numbers.
So Tampa Bay successfully played hard ball, with the looming threat of having to miss games amid a contract dispute. However, as Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman likely took hometown discounts on their deals in order to preserve the Lightning's ability to contend for the Stanley Cup, Kucherov would have had a hard time getting the Lightning to budge on getting him closer to the money he deserves right now.
Being a restricted free agent, especially one coming off of his first NHL contract, can be a really difficult negotiating position. All Kucherov can do now is light up the scoreboard like he has over the last two years and he should be able to command a massive raise on his next deal.
The payoff for taking a team-friendly contract may also include the Lightning contending for the Stanley Cup for a few more seasons. Yzerman did his job to keep it all together, now it's on coach Jon Cooper and the players to get the job done and make taking the lower-than-expected paydays count.