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Nikita Kucherov’s $76 million extension with Lightning is a bargain

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While we wait to see how the Erik Karlsson situation is figured out, Steve Yzerman and the Tampa Bay Lightning are going about their business. On Tuesday, it was announced that they’ve re-signed forward Nikita Kucherov to an eight-year, $76 million extension.

“I’m truly grateful to sign this contract extension to keep me in Tampa for the next eight seasons today,” Kucherov said in a statement. “I’d like to thank the Lightning organization and all of the fans for the support since making the Bay Area my home.”

Kucherov has one year left on his current deal, which will pay him $5.55 million this coming season. According to Joe Smith of The Athletic, the extension has a full no-trade claude in the first four years.

The max deal for Kucherov means he’s one of five Lightning players — with Steven Stamkos, Tyler Johnson, Victor Hedman, Ryan McDonagh — signed through the 2023-24 NHL season. The contract, which kicks in at the start of the 2019-20 season, will put him tied — for the moment — for the sixth-highest cap hit ($9.5 million average annual value) in the league, and yet it still seems like a bargain (not to mention Florida’s state tax situation).

Via the AP’s Stephen Whyno, here’s how the contract breaks down:

19-20: $1M salary/$11M bonus: $12M
20-21: $4M salary/$5M bonus: $9M
21-22: $3.5M salary/$8.5M bonus: $12M
22-23: $4M salary/$5M bonus: $9M
23-24: $5M salary/$5M bonus: $10M
24-25: $5M salary/$4M bonus: $9M
25-26: $5M salary/$3M bonus: $8M
26-27: $4M salary/$3M bonus: $7M

Over the last two seasons only Connor McDavid has more points (208) than Kucherov (185), and only Alex Ovechkin (82) and Patrik Laine (80) have more goals than the 25-year-old Russian (79) since the 2016-17 season.

With the ceiling continuing to rise, it wouldn’t have been surprising to see Kucherov land an extension carrying a double-digit AAV. Yzerman has done a masterful job in Tampa navigating the tricky cap waters tying up his core pieces, while making some additions and still keeping the Lightning not only a playoff team but a Stanley Cup contender.

Here’s where the fun starts: Currently, the Lightning have a little over $65 million tied up in 12 players for the ’19-20 season, per Cap Friendly. Some major salary will have to go out if they’re to land Karlsson and sign him to a max extension. But given his history, it’d be hard to doubt Yzerman’s ability to make it work. The championship window remains open for the Lightning and won’t be closing any time soon.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Lightning’s best chance for Stanley Cup is now, with or without Tavares

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Remember when the Washington Capitals viewed 2015-16 and 2016-17 as their “two-year window” to win a Stanley Cup, and then they ended up hoisting it one year after that window seemingly closed?

A similar situation may be brewing for the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Now, it’s important to first clarify that Capitals GM Brian McLellan wasn’t saying that the Capitals would either win by 2016-17 or fall flat. Instead, he viewed those two years as Washington’s best opportunities. Considering the regular season splendors versus this past season’s moderate dip (before the unprecedented highs), it was easy to understand that logic.

Lightning GM Steve Yzerman hasn’t made a similar statement, but looking at their salary structure on Cap Friendly, it would be reasonable if he has thoughts along the same lines.

It’s a big reason why the Lightning rank as arguably the most logical destinations if Erik Karlsson and/or John Tavares decide to make a one-season stop somewhere, rather than signing on longer term at a destination. And it’s a situation that has to at least be in the back of Yzerman’s mind as free agency opens up on Sunday.

Consider some of the contracts that will expire after 2018-19, or soon after:

Yzerman authored one of the truly great summers of wizardry in 2016, avoiding losing Steven Stamkos yet landing him for a team-friendly $8.5 million cap hit, signing Victor Hedman to a bargain extension, and hammering RFA leverage with Kucherov. Landing three years of the elite winger’s services for $4.767M per season through 2018-19 was a gob-smacking steal then, and it only looks more incredible after campaigns of 85 and 100 points.

Another example of Stevie Y’s deftness comes in the fact that Kucherov will still be eligible for RFA – not UFA – status after next season, but you’d have to think that Kucherov would strike an enormously tougher bargain for his next deal.

Maybe management can try to point to Stamkos’ $8.5M as a “ceiling” for deals, or at least argue that Kucherov shouldn’t make much more than that. Such arguments may fall on deaf ears for a winger who was massively, almost insultingly underpaid for years, though.

One cannot help but wonder if the Lightning are watching Sergei Bobrovsky‘s situation nervously when it comes to their own Vezina-caliber goalie.

The comparison isn’t one-to-one (Bob could be a UFA without an extension, while Vasilevskiy would be an RFA), yet the Lightning must hope that few other goalies make anywhere near Carey Price‘s $10.5M cap hit once they’re able to negotiate with Vasilevskiy.

He’ll command a hefty raise. Much like with Kucherov, the Lightning just have to hope it’s not to a devastating level.

Do you think there’s a small part of Yzerman that’s glad that certain Lightning players fell short at the 2018 NHL Awards?

During a less robust season for rookies, Gourde would have been a Calder Trophy finalist, if not the winner. He scored 25 goals and 64 points in 2017-18. For context, consider that Auston Matthews only generated five more during his 2017 Calder season, and Gourde’s 64 slightly edges some other strong winning seasons including Nathan MacKinnon in 2013-14 and Jeff Skinner in 2010-11 (both scored 63 points).

Point, meanwhile, followed up a nice rookie season (18 goals and 40 points in 68 games) in 2016-17 by scoring 32 goals and 66 points in 2017-18.

If the Lightning couldn’t hammer out some proactive extensions – plausible if the players want to maximize value, or if Tampa Bay wants more cap ceiling clarity – there’d be few moments in recent history where other GMs would be more justified to break up the country club mentality and send some challenging offer sheets to the likes of Point, Gourde, and maybe even Kucherov.

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Naturally, it’s foolish to question Yzerman considering his history as a Salary Cap Houdini.

When asked about the Lightning seeking Tavares and how they’d make the cap crunch work, he likely shed some light on how this team expects to maneuver in the probable scenario where they don’t land the big fish.

“Well, we would have to make room,” Yzerman said simply enough early this week, via The Athletic’s Joe Smith. “If we brought in a significant salary, we would have to (make cap room).”

Again, Yzerman’s been able to move cap space and bad contracts before, and he’s likely to pull such slights of hand off again.

Even then, the Lightning will almost certainly need to lose some of the supporting cast members that play a part in making Tampa Bay not just dangerous, but also deep. As we saw with the Capitals, the best days might come when things are leaner, as long as they keep their core intact.

(And maybe they’ll just find more Points, Gourdes, and Tyler Johnsons and continue laughing at the rest of the league. That could happen too.)


James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Amid Tavares push, Lightning give J.T. Miller big contract

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One J.T. down, one to go?

The Tampa Bay Lightning raised some eyebrows on Tuesday by signing J.T. Miller to a five-year, $26.25 million contract, which means he’ll carry a $5.25M cap hit from 2018-19 to 2022-23. This lofty deal surfaces despite the already-cap-challenged Lightning reportedly being a part of the bidding war for John Tavares‘ services, which makes this substantial investment doubly surprising.

That’s not to take anything away from Miller, 25, who’s coming off three consecutive seasons of at least 22 goals. He generated a career-high by a small margin with 23 this past season, also accruing 58 points. He fit in very nicely in Tampa Bay, essentially filling trade partner Vladislav Namestnikov‘s spot alongside Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov.

(This deal is the latest reminder that Lightning GM Steve Yzerman sure loves ex-Rangers. See: Ryan McDonagh being in that trade, not to mention commitments to Dan Girardi, Ryan Callahan, and Anton Stralman over the years.)

This only strengthens the impression that Yzerman will need to pull some strings – maybe trade Alex Killorn, Tyler Johnson, Braydon Coburn, etc.? – to make Tavares fit into the salary structure, even for a season.

The five-year term stands as one of the most interesting things to consider, as the Lightning face some steep potential raises in the near future. Consider these situations:

  • Nikita Kucherov’s almost-scandalous bargain of $4.767M expires after 2018-19. Yzerman deserves credit for squeezing Kucherov’s RFA status for all it was worth there, but even as an RFA again, Kucherov’s going to get paid … one way or another.
  • Andrei Vasilevskiy is due for a big raise from his $3.5M cap hit. On the bright side, Tampa Bay has him on the hook for two more seasons.
  • Two exceptional young players will be eligible to become RFAs during the 2019 summer: Brayden Point and Yanni Gourde.

All things considered, it sure seems like the Lightning are primed for an all-in season in 2018-19, and then they’ll need to pivot. Some of that cap crunch is likely to strike much sooner, and there’d be some serious gymnastics required if Tavares becomes a genuine possibility.

If anyone can do it, it’s Yzerman and the Bolts.

Will we look back at this contract as one Stevie Y will regret, or this yet another ahead-of-their-time bargain? It should be fascinating to find out.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering, “J.T.” stands for “Jonathan Tanner.” At least when it doesn’t stand for John Tavares.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Pros and cons for each team on John Tavares’ list

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Potential unrestricted free agent John Tavares will begin meeting with the teams on his shortlist on Monday. According to The Athletic writers Arthur Staple and Pierre LeBrun, that list includes: the Islanders, Maple Leafs, Stars, Sharks, Bruins and Lightning.

There’s pros and cons that are attached to every NHL city, so let’s take a look at those points for each of the teams Tavares is reportedly considering.

• New York Islanders

Pros: Well, for starters, there’s some familiarity there. Tavares has spent his entire career with the Isles, so there has to be a certain value attached to that. But beyond familiarity, there’s other reasons he might stay.

Mathew Barzal would be one. He put up some impressive offensive totals during his first full year in the NHL and he’ll only get better as his career advances.

The Islanders have also added a Stanley Cup winning coach in Barry Trotz and they’ve made major changes to their front office that now has Lou Lamoriello as general manager. Those changes have seemingly helped the odds of Tavares re-signing with his current team.

New York also has the most cap space in the league right now, as they can spend over $32 million this summer (that will change if Tavares re-signs).

Cons: Tavares has been with the Islanders for almost a decade and they still haven’t been able to go on a long playoff run. Yes, there are new people in charge, but the roster will remain the same as it was last year.

Speaking of the roster, the Isles still don’t have a number one goalie and they have a hard time keeping the puck out of their own net. That was a major issue last season. Tavares can’t fix everything.

The Isles also have that unique arena situation. They’re getting a new arena but splitting games between two different venues is far from ideal, no matter how convenient the team tries to make it. Who knows how he feels about that?

• Toronto Maple Leafs

Pros: Tavares was born in Mississauga, Ontario, so going to play for the Leafs would be a type of homecoming for him. Going back there might not be a priority for him, but it can’t hurt.

The Leafs have built a team with a solid young core that includes Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander and Jake Gardiner. Tavares wouldn’t have to go to Toronto and be the go-to guy, he could go there and be one of the guys.

Although they haven’t had much playoff success over the last decade, adding Tavares would clearly take them to another level. He has to be aware of that.

Cons: Although Toronto is “home” for him, he also knows that it comes with a ton of media pressure. It might not be enough of a reason for him to stay away from the Leafs, but it’s definitely not a selling point.

Like the Islanders, there’s no denying that the Leafs have an issue on defense. It might not be as bad as the situation in New York, but the team isn’t good enough on the blue line right now and adding Tavares won’t fix that.

The Leafs haven’t won a playoff series in quite some time (2004), so if he’s looking for a team that has had playoff success lately, Toronto isn’t the place.

There’s also a bit of unknown with new GM Kyle Dubas. How will the rookie general manager adapt to his new responsibilities? It appears as though he’ll be fine, but we really won’t know for a couple of years.

• Dallas Stars

Pros: The Stars have a dynamic attack led by Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn and Alexander Radulov. Adding Tavares to that mix would make them even more dangerous. That has to be enticing for the 27-year-old. Oh, and they also have John Klingberg on the blue line doesn’t hurt.

Like the Isles, the Stars also have a new head coach in Jim Montgomery. Obviously, he’s not as proven as Trotz, but he was in demand this spring.

Who doesn’t like money? The fact that there’s no state income tax in Texas is a huge plus for a guy who’s about to sign a long-term deal worth a lot of cash.

If you hate winter, the weather isn’t too shabby, either.

Cons: As talented as Dallas’ attack is, they’ve missed the playoffs in back-to-seasons and in eight of the last 10 years. Adding Tavares to the roster helps, but a lot of their shortcomings are things he can’t fix (like in Toronto and in New York).

The Stars have $19.8 million in cap space right now, but they only have 14 players under contract right now. Adding Tavares will cost roughly $12 million per year, so how much money will be left over to fix the rest of the issues on the roster?

No disrespect to Dallas, but it’s not a traditional hockey market. If that’s one of the things Tavares is looking for, he won’t find it there.

• San Jose Sharks

Pros: Sharks GM Doug Wilson has created almost $19 million in cap space for his team to make a serious push at Tavares. Unlike the Stars, the Sharks already have 19 players under contract for 2018-19.

In San Jose, he’ll be surrounded by players like Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture, Evander Kane, Tomas Hertl, Joe Thornton (maybe), Brent Burns, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Martin Jones. That’s a solid group.

The Sharks have also made it to the playoffs in three consecutive seasons, and they’ve gone at least two rounds in two of those years. That’s not too shabby given the parity in the NHL.

It’s California, baby!

Cons: That appearance in the Stanley Cup Final seems like it was a lifetime ago. Can they get back to that level if Tavares signs there? That remains to be seen.

The core players aren’t exactly spring chickens. Couture (29), Pavelski (33), Thornton (38), Burns (33) and Vlasic (31) are all close to 30 or over 30. Tavares would step in and become the youngest player of the bunch.

Kane and Melker Karlsson are the only forwards signed beyond next season. If things don’t work out this year, how different will the team look starting in 2020?

• Boston Bruins

Pros: The Bruins proved to be one of the better teams in the league from November on. Bruce Cassidy had them playing smart and fast hockey. If they could get Tavares to buy in to what they’re selling, that would be unreal.

This could be good or bad, but Tavares wouldn’t have to play on the top line if he joins the Bruins. Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand have incredible chemistry, so teams will focus most of their attention on them. That would leave Tavares with some juicy matchups.

Boston also has an incredible group of young talent and strong prospects coming through their pipeline. So even though they have older guys, there is a fresh batch of talent coming through the pipeline. Jake DeBrusk, Charlie McAvoy and company could make the decision easier for Tavares.

Cons: Tavares is still one of the elite players in the NHL. How would he feel to playing second fiddle to the top line? There’s plenty of ice time and power play time to go around, but it’s still something that has to be considered. He’s been the top guy on his team since the day he stepped onto NHL ice.

As of right now, the Bruins have under $12 million in cap space. Sure, moves can be made, but they also have potential free agents that they’d like to bring back (Riley Nash being one). They have to add a backup goaltender if they let Anton Khudobin walk, too.

• Tampa Bay Lightning

Pros: Look at the Lightning’s roster, they’re stacked. Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, Ondrej, Palat, Tyler Johnson, Brayden Point, J.T. Miller, Victor Hedman, Ryan McDonagh and Andrei Vasilevskiy. Can you imagine if they add Tavares?

It’s not a traditional hockey market, but their recent success has given them quite a bit of national attention over the last couple of years. He still wouldn’t have to deal with a crazy amount of media on a daily basis.

Yes, weather and a lack of a state income tax comes into play here, too.

They’ve also gone at least three rounds in three of the last four years.

Cons: For whatever reason, the Lightning haven’t been able to get over the hump. Sure, they’ve been to the conference final three times in four years, but they’ve come up just short.

Tampa also has $10.5 million in cap space and they still have to re-sign Miller and a couple of role players.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Which teams benefit most from potential buyouts?

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Today is the day that the NHL’s buyout window officially opens. Teams that are looking to rid themselves of certain contracts to open up cap space can do so by buying players out from June 15-30.

With the salary cap projected to increase from $75 million to anywhere between $78-82 million, we may see teams be less willing to bite the bullet because of the additional space. But that doesn’t mean certain organizations won’t go this route to give them a little more breathing room heading into the summer.

PHT’s Adam Gretz took a look at some of the buyout candidates for 2018, so feel free to check out his list by clicking here.

Now, we’ll look at which teams stand to benefit most from buying out a player or two.

• Minnesota Wild

The Wild already have over $67.5 million committed to the salary cap for 2018-19 and they still have to ink restricted free agents Jason Zucker and Matt Dumba to a new contracts. If they hope to make an impact signing or two in free agency, they’ll have to find a way to open up some cap space.

This is where Tyler Ennis comes into focus. Ennis is coming off a season eight goals and 22 points in 73 games. The 28-year-old has a long injury history and he comes with a cap hit of $4.6 million next season. According to Cap Friendly’s buyout calculator, buying out Ennis would cost the $2.167 million on the cap next season and $1.216 million two seasons from now. That works out to a cap savings of $2.433 million in 2018-19. Every penny counts for Minnesota.

• Pittsburgh Penguins

There’s an excellent chance the Penguins will look to tinker with their lineup after being eliminated by the Washington Capitals in the second round of the playoffs. To do that, they might need to find some additional cap space via trade or by buying out a player or two.

The most common player linked to a buyout on the Pens roster is Matt Hunwick. The 33-year-old is set to earn $2.25 million per year over the next two seasons. For a guy that was a healthy scratch for the most part in the second half of the season and in the playoffs, that’s too much money.

If GM Jim Rutherford decides he’s seen enough from Hunwick, he could save almost $1.8 million in salary next season by buying him out. The problem, is that the veteran blueliner would be eating into the Penguins’ salary cap for the next four years. His buyout cap hit would go from $458,3000 to $1.208 million to $708,333 over the final two years.

An outside-the-box buyout candidate might be Carl Hagelin, who comes with a $4 million cap hit in the final year of his contract, but that’s a long shot. The Pens could probably find a taker for him via trade, which would eliminate their need to buy him out. A hypothetical buyout would save them over $1.5 million next season. Again, it’s extremely unlikely, but it’s interesting to look at because he’s in the final year of his contract.

• Tampa Bay Lightning

The Lightning have already spent almost $67.8 million for next season. That doesn’t include the money they’ll have to pay RFA J.T. Miller.

Bolts GM Steve Yzerman isn’t shy about buying players out, as he already did so with defenseman Matthew Carle back in 2016 (Carle’s contract counts for $1.83 million for two more years).

In order to make room for youngsters like Slater Koekkoek or Jake Dotchin, the Lightning could opt to buy out Braydon Coburn, who has one year remaining on his contract at $3.7 million. The 33-year-old wasn’t terrible last season, but paying $3.7 million for a guy that averaged 16 minutes of ice time per game is a lot. Buying him out would cost Yzerman $1.233 million over the next two years. That’s a cap savings of $2.466 million next season, but it’ll also cost them $1.233 million in 2019-20.

The Lightning may also be tempted to buy out forward Ryan Callahan, who has had his share of significant injuries over the last few years. The 33-year-old has two years left on his current deal that comes with a cap hit of $5.8 million (he’s the second-highest paid forward on the team behind Steven Stamkos).

Buying out Callahan would save Yzerman $3.13 million over the next two seasons. It would also cost him $1.567 million three and four years from now. That’s a steep penalty to pay down the road, but it’s something to look at for a team that’s in win-now mode.

The issue with Tampa is simple. Saving money in 2018-19 is great and all, but paying buyout money in two years from now could become a problem because Nikita Kucherov, Ryan McDonagh, Anton Stralman and Yanni Gourde will all need to be paid again before next summer.

• San Jose Sharks

The Sharks already took care of some major business when they locked up Evander Kane to a seven-year, $49 million contract extension this offseason. Now, they have $67.49 million invested in their current group of players and they still have to re-sign RFA Tomas Hertl and potentially UFA Joe Thornton.

Assuming those are the two moves they’re going to make, the Sharks will have enough cap space to make that work. Here’s the thing, they’ve also been linked as a potential landing spot for John Tavares.

If they want to take a serious run at JT, they’ll need all the flexibility they can get. That means that they could let Thornton walk, but it also means that they can stand to buy out the final year of Paul Martin‘s contract.

Martin, who has one year remaining on his current deal, is set to count for $4.85 million on the cap. Buying him out would save GM Doug Wilson $2.833 million in 2018-19.

The 37-year-old spent time in the minors and he was made a healthy scratch often enough. It would be surprising to see a team take on his salary via trade. This might be the Sharks’ only option if they want to open up money for a big splash in the free-agent market.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.