Kucherov, a restricted free agent, has been without a contract since the 2015-16 season ended. Having scored 131 points in 159 games over the past two seasons, all while being an incredible possession driver, Number-86 is in a position where he no doubt deserves a hefty pay raise. When you look at deals signed by players like Filip Forsberg, Nathan MacKinnon, and Vladimir Tarasenko, among others, it's quite easy to envision a situation in which Kucherov receives north of $6.5-million annually on a long-term deal.#tblightning GM Steve Yzerman said they were told by Nikita Kucherov's agent that the wing won't report to camp without a contract. Is RFA— Joe Smith (@TBTimes_JSmith) September 29, 2016
The big question, of course, is whether or not the Tampa Bay Lightning can afford to make that kind of deal work in the short-term. According to General Fanager, the Lightning have approximately $5.866M in cap space available for this season prior to a Kucherov deal being signed. They'll be helped out by LTIR to start the season, but the fact remains that there isn't a lot of space to go around. The issues are compounded by the fact that players like Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, and Jonathan Drouin will all be in need of new contracts in the near future, as well. Dropping a boatload of money for Kucherov would come with consequences.
It's because of this that the idea of a bridge deal has the pundits talking; the always-thoughtful Mike Gallimore first floated the idea a few months back. Keeping Kucherov's cap hit relatively low for a couple years will allow the team to get itself out from contracts like Valtteri Filppula's, Jason Garrison's, and Braydon Coburn's. Those deals eat up valuable space that can and should be used on younger (read: cheaper and equally effective) players.
Granted, getting Kucherov signed to a bridge deal is easier said than done. Does Steve Yzerman really want to risk having to pay even more for Kucherov in a couple years? If Kucherov were signed to a bridge deal and continued to produce at an elite clip, would $9M per season be out of reach on his next contract? There's a tremendous amount of risk there. And, on the other side of the equation, does Kucherov even have any desire to sign a bridge deal?
The bottom line: There's no easy answer.
One intriguing possibility is that of an offer sheet being thrown Kucherov's way, though you'd have to think that if one was coming it would have happened by now. Consider a team desperate for talented youth and with the picks to spare, a team like the Vancouver Canucks:
The Canucks, quite frankly, aren't very good. Signing Kucherov to a 7-year, $49M offer sheet would give them a huge injection of youth at a relatively palatable price. It would finally give them an offensive heir apparent to the Sedin twins. The potential fit and attraction is obvious.Should the Canucks offer sheet Kucherov? No first round picks for like, ever, buuuuut... he's really good https://t.co/40NzS3cY0b— Blake Price (@BlakePriceTSN) September 28, 2016
For the Lightning, that sort of offer sheet, if left unmatched, would net them Vancouver's (or whoever else's) next four (!) first round picks. Kucherov is really, really good, but the idea of saving so much cap space such that signing Johnson, Palat, and Drouin becomes simpler all while recouping four (!) first round picks from a middling team is practically too good to pass up.
It's tough to say whether an offer sheet is a realistic possibility, but it is a possibility. In simple terms, there's a ton for Yzerman to consider, and it's coming at him from all angles.
For now, all we know is that the Lightning won't have one of their premier snipers at camp. And, the longer this plays out, the more uncomfortable it will be for everyone. With no resolution on the horizon, all Lightning fans can do is sit back and wait.
As always, thanks for reading.