BRANDON, Fla. — Amid a round of cheers from the fans circling the rink at the Brandon Ice Sports Forum, Nikita Kucherov stepped onto an ice surface wearing a Tampa Bay uniform on Wednesday for the first time since Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals last May.
Deep down inside, Lightning coach Jon Cooper was among those cheering Kucherov’s long-awaited arrival.
Kucherov’s return, which came in the wake of a preseason-long absence that didn’t end until the former free-agent right winger signed a three-year, $14.3 million bridge contract on Tuesday, means the Lighting will start the 2016-17 season virtually distraction free.
That wasn’t the case this time last year, and boy did the Lightning ever struggle as a result of it.
With the Steven Stamkos contract issue (and his possible trade) hanging over their heads, the defending Eastern Conference champions stumbled out of the gate and didn’t secure a playoff berth until April, when the best they could do was place second in the three-team wild-card race.
Cooper believes the Lightning are poised for a much better breakout this year and the fact general manager Steve Yzerman has erased just about every potential contract issue that might have proved to be a distraction is the biggest reason for his optimism.
“This way you get to just concentrate on hockey,’’ Cooper said. “I mean, you look at the Stamkos’s situation last year and he can say whatever he wants about putting it behind him, but it’s hard to do. I can tell you that from personal experience.
“When I was going into the last year of my deal, there’s a little part of you in the back of your head that goes, ‘What’s next?’ And I’m sure that’s the way it was for Stammer and Kooch and all these guys that had deals coming up. But now they get to really push that aside.
“And when you consider all these players made decisions to (take less than market value) to keep everybody together, it shows the team-first mentality our players have and that’s probably why we’ve had success here these last couple years.’’
You can count Kucherov among those who took a little less than market value to stay with the Lightning. His three-year deal calls for him to make $4.25 million this season $4.5 million next season and $5.55 million for the 2018-19 season.
Not even the final year of that deal is worth the $6.75 million average that comparable Flames left winger John Gaudreau agreed to in the six-year contract he signed on Monday. But Kucherov was clearly looking for more than just a big pay day out of this contract.
He easily could have held out for more money and a longer-term deal, but by doing that he almost certainly would have forced the Lightning to make a trade to clear the cap space necessary to fit him in. That would have disrupted the team’s chemistry and Kucherov didn’t want to do that.
“I just thought the shorter-term deal was best in this situation,’’ he said. “You don’t want to lose any guys and after having the situation like we had with Stammer last year, it’s great to have everybody back because we have unfinished business this year.’’
The same can be said of Yzerman. Though he’s cleared the decks of most of his team’s potential distractions by re-signing Stamkos, Kucherov, defenseman Victor Hedman, winger Alex Killorn and goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, there’s still one issue looming over the club.
As the dawn of the 2016-17 season breaks the long-term future of goaltender Ben Bishop remains uncertain. Like Stamkos a year ago, Bishop is headed for unrestricted free agency at the end of the year, unless of course the Lightning move him in a trade before then.
That seems unlikely, at least in the short term. Like Stamkos, Hedman and Kucherov, the Lightning are willing to get less than market value – perhaps even nothing — for Bishop because they want to keep their window of opportunity to win the Cup as wide open as possible.
“You see, I believe you make your own window,’’ Cooper said. “And right now I like where we’re at. We just have to perform… because while the last couple of years have been really, really successful for us, they haven’t been what we want.
“I mean, our goal is to win the Stanley Cup, so to see (Kucherov) zipping around out there is gratifying because you want to put your best foot forward, especially early in the season, because you just can’t let games slip away.
“I’m not saying we’re guaranteeing we’re going to win all our games but we want to be able to put our best foot forward and Kucherov is a big part of that. He’s a really popular teammate and so the guys are really excited to have him back.’’