With Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman re-signed to brand new contracts and set to stay in Tampa for a long time, the focus of fans has turned towards Nikita Kucherov. The skilled Russian winger has established himself as one of the best players on the team. While much of the top six forwards had up and down seasons, Kucherov was a consistent force from start to finish and beyond for the Lightning in 2015-16.
While the debate about his contract is important to the future of the Lightning, the fact that Alex Killorn and Vladislav Namestnikov have not re-signed yet could mean that Steve Yzerman is facing a challenge fitting everybody under the cap. Also still waiting for new contracts are Nikita Nesterov and Yanni Gourde. Gourde’s contract is unimportant in the overall scheme as it will be a minimal two-way contract that won’t impact the salary cap while he’s in the AHL. The hang up for Gourde is likely over guaranteed money. Nesterov likewise will have a contract will a small cap hit and isn’t a big factor other than that he will be on the roster and even if he wasn’t, there’d be another player with a similar cap hit in his spot.
Making a couple assumptions, like Tanner Richard or Joel Vermin making the roster out of training camp with Ryan Callahan on IR, the Lightning are looking at just over $12 million in cap space according to CapFriendly.com to fit Kucherov, Killorn, Namestnikov, and Nesterov.
For most of the past season, I’ve believed that Kucherov would ultimately sign a 6 year deal for $6.5 million annually. Killorn could fall anywhere from $3.5 million to $4.5 million. Justin Abdelkader’s contract will be a contract that his agents will point to. Even though Abdelkader is older and less productive than Killorn, he signed a long term deal with a $4.25 million annual value. You can also look at Nazem Kadri, Max Pacioretty, and Nick Bjugstad as players that had similar performances prior to signing their contracts and they all received over $4 million. Or how about the (LOL) Montreal Canadiens signing Andrew Shaw (/LOL) for $3.9 million on a long term contract?
Kadri, Pacioretty, and Bjugstad had at least slightly stronger resumes than Killorn at the time of their deals. However, you can be sure that if the case goes to arbitration, those are the types of contracts his agents will be pointing to as comparables and that his agents are already using in their discussions with Steve Yzerman.
Further complicating matters is Namestnikov having something of a break out year with 35 points. He is likely looking for a bridge deal north of $2 million. He hasn’t reached the heights that Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson did early in their NHL careers, but he is on the rise and has shown a lot of potential. With a more regular role with offensive linemates and power play time, it’s not out of the question for Namestnikov to contribute 50 points to the team.
Even going $4 million and $2 million for Killorn and Namestnikov respectively, if Kucherov is being signed for $6.5 million, the team is certainly going over the cap. Yzerman could find some relief at the beginning of the season by placing Ryan Callahan on Long Term Injured Reserve. However, once Callahan is ready to return a month into the season, the problems would re-appear and force a move for him to return.
The trouble with getting these three signed and under the salary cap is likely why we haven’t seen deals completed. Yzerman could be working on a trade, possibly for Killorn or Namestnikov, or potentially for someone else on the roster like Valtteri Filppula. The complications with Killorn and Namestnikov is also a likely stumbling block for Kucherov being signed and may be the difference between a 6 year deal and an 8 year deal at a higher cap hit than $6.5 million. Or maybe even a shorter term deal at a lower annual value to make everything work knowing that his next contract will cost the team even more.
There’s still at least a couple weeks to get everything worked out as the earliest arbitration meetings could happen is July 20th. I expect Yzerman is exploring every possibility to get the numbers to work not only for 2016-17 but into the future as well.