Nikita Kucherov’s Comments and the Impact on the Tampa Bay Lightning Off-Season

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Nikita Kucherov
PITTSBURGH, PA - MAY 22: Nikita Kucherov #86 of the Tampa Bay Lightning celebrates after scoring a goal against Marc-Andre Fleury #29 of the Pittsburgh Penguins during the third period in Game Five of the Eastern Conference Final during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Consol Energy Center on May 22, 2016 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

Nikita Kucherov was in hot water at the end of April. While in Russia for the World Championship, he participated in an interview with Sovsport.ru. The interview went a little haywire, and Kucherov began bashing his teammates with the Tampa Bay Lightning, and even some of the coaching staff.

Nikita Kucherov’s Comments and the Impact on the Tampa Bay Lightning Off-Season

Comments on the Team

“[Some guys] got their money and stopped working. They knew that there was no competition in the lineup and the organization wasn’t going to acquire anyone else. They didn’t really play well this year, you can see it from their stats and play. When I was playing with them, they wouldn’t even expect my passes. This is why this season was hard to me, in spite of the good stats.”

Nikita Kucherov clearly calls out some unmentioned teammates with this quote. He says they stopped working after getting paid; even to the extent of not expecting Kucherov’s passes. It is unclear which teammates he meant with this quote. Some have speculated that he was speaking out about Alex Killorn and Jason Garrison. They each cost the team more than $4 million, and were the second and third most expensive players (by final roster, and cap hit) on the team excluding the injured Steven Stamkos and Ryan Callahan.

Disappointing Years

The most disappointing season of the three is probably Garrison’s. In 70 games he only managed nine points, despite being one of the team’s top four defenseman. He’s also the most expensive defenseman on the team, costing $600,000 more than Victor Hedman last year (though this will changed in 2017-18).

Killorn also didn’t live up to expectations. He had 36 points in 81 games. While those numbers aren’t terrible, he had potential to have a lot better of a season. As injuries occured, Killorn was given more minutes, with better linemates, and more opportunities on the power play. 36 points just is not good enough, for his salary and ice time.  Late in the season, in the with the Lightning fighting for a play-off spot, Killorn scored just five points in his last 24 games.

One should also consider that this was Killorn’s first season on a seven-year contract he signed last summer. Before signing, Killorn had two seasons of at least 40 points and was looking promising. He simply didn’t step-up when the Lightning needed him too.

Kucherov’s Play with Killorn and Garrison

Down the stretch, Kucherov spent time as a winger with Killorn at centre, as injuries decimated the Lightning’s depth up the middle. Rookie Yanni Gourde played on the other wing.

Garrison averaged just over 18 and a half minutes per game this year too, and Kucherov averaged just under 19 and a half; so it’s likely that they spent a lot of time on the ice together. Still, it’s not sure who exactly Kucherov was referencing.

What It Means for the Off-Season

Given the six-years remaining on his contract, as well as the fact that the Lightning can only protect seven forwards in the expansion draft. It seems likely that Killorn will be made available in said draft. With the length of the contract and the cap hit attached to it, it is unclear if Vegas will take Killorn, or choose a younger player with less of a long-term commitment.  Given their cap crunch, and restricted free agents Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson, and Jonathan Drouin all needing new deals this summer, the Lightning may not be too upset to get that cap relief.

Garrison will also likely be exposed in the expansion draft, however it is unlikely that the Golden Knights will be interested in him.  Given his age, 32, and contract, one-year remaining at a 4.6 million cap hit, the Golden Knights will have better defence options.

Meanwhile in Tampa, Steve Yzerman has made it clear that he is in search of another top-four defenceman for his team. This would push Garrison further down the line-up.  If there are any suitors interested in trading for Garrison, Tampa would likely welcome a deal, not asking much in return. Getting this cap hit off the books, and freeing up the money for other moves would be a major coup for Yzerman.  It certainly won’t be easy though.

Bashing the Coaches’ Decisions

“After that coaches started shuffling lines — partners were changing like in a kaleidoscope. It was very hard to get used to it because guys didn’t play at Stamkos level. It’s hard to explain how I played with them. We had a lack of understanding of each other, and there were some problems. I was suffering torments all season because I couldn’t find perfect chemistry with other partners after (the) Stamkos injury. (I) played with Jonathan Drouin once, and it was good. But coach didn’t put us together again, for some reason.”

This quote isn’t as aggressive as the quote targeting his teammates, but it still shows Kucherov’s unhappiness. In this, he talks about his unrest with the constant switching of lines. Like his previous complaint, it’s somewhat justified. Kucherov saw time playing alongside almost every player on the team since Stamkos season-ending injury. He says the time he spent beside Jonathan Drouin went well. They continued to see ice time together off-and-on, but it was never consistent.

Looking at Kucherov’s Linemates

Towards the end of the year, specifically looking at the last ten games, Kucherov saw ice time with five different lines; a combination of seven different players. Amongst them were Brayden Point, Palat, and Gourde; three players who seemed to find a way into almost all five line combos. Kucherov managed to score 12 points in those ten games alone, but still five different lines in ten games is relatively dramatic considering the elite season Kucherov was having.

Over the entire season, Kucherov’s most consistent was with Tyler Johnson and Palat; a line he has played a lot with over the last season. Still, he didn’t even spend a quarter of his 1438 minutes of ice time with that line. He spent a little less time with Point in Johnson’s place, which was his second most consistent line. Johnson’s injury issue late in the season certainly played a role as to the Lightning getting away from this line. However, it doesn’t explain the constant line juggling that Kucherov complained about.

Comparison to other NHL Stars

Chicago Blackhawks star Patrick Kane, who can arguably be compared to Kucherov, spent just about 45 percent of his ice time this season with the same line. Considering the similarities between the Hawks and Lightning, it goes to show how different the Lightning’s treatment of Kucherov was. With how crucial it can be to get to know your linemates, Kucherov’s frustration is well justified.

Kucherov’s Playing History

Kucherov had the best season of his career so far, obtaining 19 points more than he did in the 2015-16 season, despite playing in three less games. This year he put up 85 points in 74 games. Kucherov was the

It was the best seasons of his career, which has only consisted of four seasons including the latest one. In his rookie year, Kucherov only had 18 points in 52 games. Since then, he’s had an amazing 216 points in 233 games. After last season, it was clear that the then 22-year-old was going to pose an incredible offensive threat in the league. His playoff production has been even better with 42 points in 45 career games.

Kucherov was selected 58th overall in the 2011 draft. Players chosen above him include Lucas Lessio, Johan Sundstrom, and Alexander Khokhlachev; all players who don’t even have NHL contracts currently. Kucherov was a tremendous steal for the Lightning. Kucherov has proved to be one of the most elite wingers in the league. He’s also still very young compared to the other stars of the league.

Steve Yzerman’s Reply

It is surprising to hear such a prominent player complain publically in this way. Considering his skill, though, it’s not likely that the Lightning turn a blind eye to it. This is evident from Steve Yzerman’s, reply to Kucherov’s comments.

To make it simple, Yzerman said that he would meet with Kucherov after the IIHF World Championships. It was also mentioned that the team would be open to Kucherov’s comments, which could mean an exciting off-season is in store for the Lightning. There is no way of knowing for sure though, and it’s very likely that the team keeps the details of Yzerman and Kucherov’s meeting from the public.

In addition to the pending RFAs already mentioned; defenceman Andrej Sustr is also a pending RFA; while Greg McKegg and Luke Witkowski are pending UFAs. The four RFAs are likely to get new deals, with Johnson, Palat and Drouin all in line for significant raises. It is likely that McKegg is allowed to leave, while Witkowski would only be re-signed if he were to agree to a very cheap contract. As for Nikita Kucherov, he still has two seasons left on the “bridge” contract he signed last summer. He can become an RFA in 2019.

Main Photo:
PITTSBURGH, PA – MAY 22: Nikita Kucherov #86 of the Tampa Bay Lightning celebrates after scoring a goal against Marc-Andre Fleury #29 of the Pittsburgh Penguins during the third period in Game Five of the Eastern Conference Final during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Consol Energy Center on May 22, 2016 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

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