The player: Nikita Kucherov, 25, RW
The terms: Eight years, $9.5 million annually against the cap, beginning in 2019-20.
Where does he fit in?
He’s going to be right next to Steven Stamkos in perpetuity, one assumes. That duo proved to be one of the best in the NHL last season, but Kucherov has proven he can drive the offense on a line with a variety of teammates, beginning with the Triplets three years ago and continuing through his time with the Lightning captain.
His last two seasons have fueled this $76 million, eight-year deal. His 1.20 points per game average over the last two seasons ranks behind only Connor McDavid of Edmonton (1.27) and Evgeni Malkin of Pittsburgh (1.21) among NHL leaders since 2016. He amassed 149 points in 211 games in his first three seasons combined; in the last two, Kucherov has 185 points in 154 games, scoring 11 more power-play goals (25) than he did in his first three seasons (14).
That impressive offensive output extends into the playoffs, where Kucherov has 59 points in 62 games since 2014. That 0.95 points per game average ranks him seventh in the NHL in postseason scoring for that stretch.
He’s a vital part of the Lightning, a burgeoning MVP candidate in the NHL and a player who seems to get better and more multifaceted in each season — witness the physical edge with which he played in Tampa’s last playoff run.
Now, about that contract…
Does this deal make sense?
Let it be said that retaining Kucherov was paramount and wasn’t always a certainty.
They signed him to a $4.766-million AAV three-year bridge contract in 2016 that was considered an underpayment, given that Johnny Gaudreau had been handed a $6.75-million-per-season deal for six years from the Calgary Flames. Whether the Lightning could afford Kucherov was a point of speculation, and that speculation only intensified when Tampa Bay became a major player for the services of Ottawa Senators star defenseman Erik Karlsson and pitched center John Tavares before he settled on the Toronto Maple Leafs. Could they acquire one, or both, and still keep Kuch?
But GM Steve Yzerman said on Tuesday that signing Kucherov was never linked to either of those moves, or any others, and has “no bearing on anything we may do going forward.”
As an individual contract, Kucherov’s deal is a great one for Yzerman. The $9.5 million AAV already looks like a bargain, given the $11 million annually Tavares received and the number of offensive players (Tyler Seguin, Taylor Hall, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner) who will be receiving significant raises soon. They even received a little wiggle room on the trade protection: According to reports, Kucherov has a no-move clause from 2020-24 that becomes a no-trade clause before 2024-25. By then, there will only be $24 million left to pay out on the deal, and only $10 million of it in guaranteed signing bonuses.
But the real issue is the Lightning’s cap flexibility going forward. According to CapFriendly.com, the Lightning have 12 players signed for the 2019-20 season with a combined cap hit of $65.8 million. That includes only three defensemen: Victor Hedman, Ryan McDonagh and Mikhail Sergachev, who is still on his rookie deal.
Karlsson, if he’s acquired, will carry at least the $11 million annually that Drew Doughty received from the Los Angeles Kings, barring some cap discount given the tax situation in Florida. But even with that discount, the Lightning would have to do some heavy lifting just to fit Karlsson in next season at $6.5 million against the cap, as they have under $4 million in space remaining.
One assumes J.T. Miller‘s new $5.25 million AAV contract is portable, given that he has no trade protection. One also assumes Ryan Callahan‘s modified no-trade clause would be used to find a home for his $5.8 million cap hit, in a deal sweetened by a draft pick or prospect.
Going forward, the Lightning will have some flexibility with so many players coming off their deals in Summer 2019, including players going unrestricted like Anton Stralman, Yanni Gourde and Braydon Coburn, along with restricted free agent Brayden Point, who needs a new deal. But if Karlsson’s on the roster with a new contract, building around that expensive core — Kucherov ($9.5 million), Stamkos ($8.5 million), Victor Hedman ($7.875 million) and Karlsson — will be daunting.
Yzerman says it can be done. “I don’t think it’s impossible. But if you look at the one-way commitment to the following season, we still have cap space to do what we wanted. But if we were to bring in a significant contract, we’d have to make the money work,” he said on Tuesday.
Overall Grade: A
They’re keeping one of the top offensive players in hockey in the fold for less than what the going rate for a such a talent will end up being in the next few seasons. That’s not to say that $9.5 million is a discount, because we’ve seen a home-team discount, and it’s Stamkos’ deal; it’s to say that it’s not going to be seen as an overpayment, given the player’s trajectory. Factor in the changing trade protection, and it’s even better.
Most of all, it gives Yzerman cost certainty on this deal, whether it’s in making a run at Karlsson or simply in reconfiguring his current roster. Let’s not pretend that this level of stability isn’t going to be attractive to someone like Karlsson, who is weighing a few options. Look at Tavares, who selected a young Toronto roster (along with the trappings of home) over the San Jose Sharks‘ talented but aged group. Stamkos, Kucherov and Hedman are all south of 30 and locked up through 2024 at a minimum. Karlsson has to love that (especially when the Dallas Stars still haven’t gotten pen to paper from Seguin on a new deal).
There aren’t many general managers in the NHL who could be inside this sort of cap conundrum and have the hockey world confident they’ll come out of it for the better, but Steve Yzerman is one.