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USATSI

The reigning Stanley Cup champions will be without their best offensive player for the entire 2021 regular season. Tampa Bay Lightning general manager Julien BriseBois announced Wednesday that Nikita Kucherov will undergo hip surgery and miss the upcoming season, per Joe Smith of The Athletic.

Kucherov reportedly began dealing with the hip issue in early December and was hoping to avoid surgery, but treatments didn't work and it became clear that the winger wouldn't be able to play through the injury for an entire season, even with the abbreviated 56-game schedule. As such, he has elected to undergo surgery with the hope that he will be able to return in time for the playoffs and help the Lightning defend their title. 

Kucherov, 27, dealt with a groin injury during the Lightning's Stanley Cup run this summer. 

The loss is a pretty brutal one for Tampa Bay, as Kucherov has led the team in points in each of the last five seasons -- including a 128-point campaign that won him the Art Ross Trophy and Hart Trophy in 2018-2019. Last season, Kucherov scored 33 goals and added 52 assists (85 total points) in 68 games.

But while his absence will certainly be felt on the ice, it will provide the Lightning with some much-needed financial wiggle room. The team is about $2 million over the salary cap ceiling right now, and they still have a few players they hope to re-sign (Anthony Cirelli and Tyler Johnson). Kucherov's $9.5 million salary being placed on long-term IR will ease their cap woes, likely allowing BriseBois to sign one or both of Cirelli/Johnson. 

According to Smith, BriseBois is still likely to explore trades that will allow the team to clear cap space and create additional flexibility this season.