The defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning are going to have to defend their title without their best offensive player during the 2020-21 regular season.
General manager Julien BriseBois announced on Wednesday that forward Nikita Kucherov will undergo hip surgery and will not be available to play during the regular season. That leaves open the possibility for him to return for the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The 27-year-old Kucherov is one of the league’s most dominant offensive players. His 396 points since the start of the 2016-17 season are second-most in the league during that stretch, trailing only the 421 from Edmonton’s Connor McDavid. Kucherov won the 2018-19 scoring title with 128 points while also taking home the Hart Trophy as league MVP. His production dropped slightly this past season, but he was still on track for what would have been his third consecutive 100-point season had all 82 games been played.
His 34 points led all scorers during the playoffs this past season.
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While losing Kucherov for the regular season definitely hurts the Lightning on the ice, it does clear up a big headache for them off the ice.
This means the Lightning can put Kucherov on LTIR for the season and clear $9.5 million in salary cap space. This should allow them to re-sign restricted free agent Anthony Cirelli and become cap compliant before the start of the regular season without having to make a significant trade. They may still make a move, but there is not as much pressure as there was 24 hours ago.
This may look convenient for the Lightning for salary cap purposes, but you can be sure that they did not want this to be the way they became cap compliant. Kucherov is a massive part of their team (he is literally one of the best hockey players in the world) and not having him for the regular season is a significant loss.
While Kucherov will not be available during the season, Brisebois did say team captain Steven Stamkos is healthy and should be ready to go at the start. Stamkos missed all but three minutes of the 2020 playoffs due to injury.