CLEARWATER — Nikita Kucherov could have waited a year, allowing the demand for a top young NHL scorer to escalate as he hit restricted free agency next summer.
But when the Lightning made him an offer to become the highest-paid player in the team's history, to keep another key part of the team's young nucleus locked up longterm, he didn't hesitate. He signed an eight-year extension worth $9.5 million a year, starting with the 2019-20 season.
"Why wait?" asked the 25-year-old, who led the team in scoring (39 goals, 61 assists) and ranked third in the NHL last season, earning All-Star honors. "It's been unbelievable. I didn't think twice when I had a chance to sign it."
Tampa Bay has reached the Eastern Conference final three times in four years, and general manager Steve Yzerman made it a priority to keep his top talents this offseason. Leaders and top players like Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman, Ryan McDonagh, J.T. Miller and Tyler Johnson are now all locked up through at least 2022-23, giving them another five years together.
"We want to keep as many good players as we can," Yzerman said. "We'd like to keep everybody. Unfortunately, at some point, you cannot keep everybody. We're trying to be as competitive as possible in trying to manage the salary cap. … At some point, we're going to have to make some decisions that are strictly cap-related."
As he did with McDonagh, Yzerman made an offer a full year ahead of free agency, choosing stability now with a group of players who have found success together. Kucherov's average of $9.5 million is more than Stamkos ($8.5 million) or Hedman ($7.875 million) averaged in their eight-year extensions two years ago.
Kucherov celebrated his new deal on the ice, spending 90 minutes at Clearwater Ice Arena, working out with a team from Switzerland. The message is that if the same players are returning for Tampa Bay, they must all improve individually to make the team better in the season ahead.
"I'm getting ready for a long season. Hopefully we make it to the Cup and win the Cup," he said. "I want to be 100 percent sure I feel good during the season, able to play 100 games in a season. I want to be sure my body feels good and I take care of it. It's a long process. It's a good time to prove yourself."
Video: Nikita Kucherov talks about his new contract extension and his decision to sign longterm with the Lightning. pic.twitter.com/7PBDdPXLkF— Greg Auman (@gregauman) July 10, 2018
The team from Switzerland went through workouts led by former Lightning forward Dmitri Afanasenkov, who said he's never surprised by Kucherov's work ethic, either during the season or in the middle of summer.
"He's always been a hard-working guy. He can't stay without the hockey," Afanasenkov said. "He's always trying to find ways to get even better. He's one of the best in the NHL, but what I like about him, he's always looking ahead, next step, always looking to improve."
Kucherov's new money doesn't come until next year, so the Lightning could still make a deal for Senators defenseman Erik Karlsson, a two-time Norris Trophy winner, though it would take other moves to create salary-cap room, both this year and longterm.
"I don't think it's impossible," Yzerman said of adding a major piece. "Certainly, if you just look at our commitments … we still have cap space, but if we were to bring in a significant contract, we'd have to make the money work, so to speak. It would be the same situation beyond this year."
Yzerman said there is "nothing imminent, nothing close" with Karlsson. Any reports that would suggest otherwise are "very inaccurate," he said.
There are still young talents who aren't locked up longterm. Brayden Point, who had 32 goals this past season and is only 22, is a restricted free agent after next season; goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, 24, is a restricted free agent in two years.
And with a new deal, Kucherov is motivated most to bring Tampa Bay a Stanley Cup championship, if not more than one.
"We just need a little bit," he said. "I think when it happens, it's going to be like Pittsburgh (champs in 2016 and 2017). We may go for two in a row if it happens once."
Contact Greg Auman at [email protected]mpabay.com and (813) 310-2690. Follow @gregauman.