Todays SlapShot

25 March 2016: Tampa Bay Lightning right wing Nikita Kucherov (86) during the NHL game between the New York Islanders and Tampa Bay Lightning at the Amalie Arena in Tampa, FL. (Photo by Mark LoMoglio/Icon Sportswire)
Tampa Bay Lightning

Kucherov entrenched as Lightning’s top priority

Mark LoMoglio/Icon Sportswire

The Tampa Bay Lightning are on the short list of contenders for the Stanley Cup. In fact, a pretty strong case could be made that they have the most complete roster in hockey right now.

That didn’t happen by accident. They’ve drafted well, made some savvy moves and rolled the dice when they had to. Rather than deal away Steven Stamkos before the trade deadline last season, GM Steve Yzerman opted to go all in on a deep playoff run — taking the risk that he might lose one of the biggest free agents in NHL history along the way.

Were there doubters? Of course. This is the Internet Age, after all.

But the message seemed to resonate with the guys in the locker room, who were able to push all the way to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final, predominantly without the services of Stamkos, who ended up sidelined with a health issue. And then, of course, they got him signed this summer anyway. The risk paid off.

Part of the reason the front office was willing to take that risk is the simple fact that the window to win a Cup is open right now for this group. How long that window stays open is still to be determined though, as a number of players will be looking for new deals within the next 12 months.

Ben Bishop can become a free agent next summer, while young offensive weapons Jonathan Drouin, Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson are set to become restricted free agents after the 2016-17 campaign.

03 MAY 2016: Tampa Bay Lightning right wing Nikita Kucherov (86) during Game 3 of the second round series between the New York Islanders and the Tampa Bay Lightning played at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn,NY. (Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire)

03 MAY 2016: Tampa Bay Lightning right wing Nikita Kucherov (86) during Game 3 of the second round series between the New York Islanders and the Tampa Bay Lightning. (Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire)

That doesn’t even account for Nikita Kucherov, who is an RFA right now. And while that’s a lot of top tier talent that will be looking for raises in 2017, Kucherov might just be the most gifted of them all.

In his first two full NHL seasons, the 23-year old has posted nearly identical stat lines. He tallied 29 goals and 36 assists in 2014-15, then followed that up with 30 and 36 this past season. That’s 131 points over the last two years — tied for No. 21 overall in the league over that stretch. And the 59 goals rank him 14th in that time.

Those are lofty totals, particularly when you factor in his 21 goals and 20 assists over the span of two deep playoff runs. Not only is Kucherov consistent, he doesn’t struggle when the pressure’s on. If anything, he rises to the occasion.

That quality was especially evident throughout the first half of the 2015-16 campaign, when both Palat and Johnson were struggling to find the scoresheet while dealing with a variety of injuries. Those two — along with Kucherov — had made up the fabled “Triplets” line during the Lightning’s journey to the Stanley Cup Final in 2015. With their numbers down, it only seemed logical that Kucherov’s would take a hit too.

That never happened.

In fact, he was one of the main reasons Tampa Bay was able to pull out of an early season tailspin and ultimately get back on track. And that all adds up to Kucherov being among the most important players on the roster — perhaps behind only Stamkos, really. In short, inking him to a new deal is clearly the organization’s top priority now.

So will it get done? Most signs seem to indicate the Lightning are confident he’ll get re-signed. But it’s worth pointing out that the season starts in just about two weeks, so time is of the essence at this point. Nikita Nesterov just re-upped for one-year at $725,000, leaving Kucherov as the club’s last RFA. That might speed up the process, but it also leaves Tampa with under $6 million in cap space to work with.

Could Kucherov get that much on the open market? Well, yeah — maybe even more. But he’s not on the open market.

And, as Roy Cummings noted when he joined The Natural Hat Trick Podcast earlier this month, the Lightning have been able to craft this potentially dominant lineup partially because their top players have been willing to take a little less money — in exchange for a strong shot at hoisting the Cup in June.

Perhaps Stamkos spoke with Kucherov before he opted to forego free agency and stay in Tampa himself. If so, this could just end up being another one of those signings that gets done right at the last second, with the prospect of opening night acting as a catalyst to hasten negotiations. And it’s not like Kucherov needs training camp — he just played for Russia in the World Cup.

Lightning fans won’t rest easy until his name is on the dotted line though. This is a roster constructed to be in the mix for awhile, and that’s great. More importantly though, it’s built to win the whole thing right now. And while they have a strong collection of talent in place already, a proven playoff performer like Kucherov could be the difference between simply contending and actually taking home a title.

Kucherov entrenched as Lightning’s top priority

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