Nikita Kucherov agrees to three-year 'bridge' deal with Lightning

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<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nhl/players/5425/" data-ylk="slk:Nikita Kucherov">Nikita Kucherov</a> #86 of the <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nhl/teams/tam/" data-ylk="slk:Tampa Bay Lightning">Tampa Bay Lightning</a> celebrates after scoring a goal against <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nhl/players/3341/" data-ylk="slk:Marc-Andre Fleury">Marc-Andre Fleury</a> #29 of the <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nhl/teams/pit/" data-ylk="slk:Pittsburgh Penguins">Pittsburgh Penguins</a> 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. (Getty Images)
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. (Getty Images)

The Tampa Bay Lightning and scoring winger Nikita Kucherov have agreed to a three-year contract, the team announced Tuesday.

The average annual value of the deal is $4.766 million, which comes out to around $14,299,998 million total over the life of the contract. The decision by the Lightning and Kucherov to agree to a ‘bridge’ type contract likely had to do with Tampa’s salary cap situation.

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As of Monday, the Lightning had $5,866,667 of salary cap space for the upcoming season. It was believed Kucherov was looking for a long-term contract in the $6 million range.

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The Lightning need to figure out a way to re-sign forwards Ondrej Palat, Jonathan Drouin and Tyler Johnson, who are all restricted free agents next summer. Palat and Johnson make $3.33 million per-year and Drouin is on his entry-level contract. The Lightning have $59,186,665 million dedicated to 26 contracts for 2017-18. All three players will likely demand large raises next offseason.

A long-term contract comparable for the 23-year-old Kucherov could have been Nashville Predators forward Filip Forsberg, who received a six-year $36 million deal from the team. But based on Tampa’s salary structure, a deal worth $6 million per-year for Kucherov wouldn’t have worked.

The Tampa Bay Times explained why Kucherov received the type of contract he got.

Kucherov, who made $700,000 last season, was expected to warrant $6 million or more annually in a long-term deal. But the Lightning has just $5 million to $5.5 million in cap space so it doesn’t look like that type of contract is available. Instead of taking a discounted six- to seven-year deal, Kucherov could go with a shorter, two- to three-year pact at a smaller annual average, with the potential for a bigger future contract. Kucherov, with limited leverage as a restricted free agent, could theoretically sit out until Dec. 1, but after that he’d be ineligible to play the rest of the season. It doesn’t look like it will get that far.

A bridge deal may not have been ideal for Kucherov, but it sets up a big payday in three years if he continues to post similar numbers – and provided he stays healthy. The last two seasons, Kucherov has turned into one of the Lightning’s top players with 65 points and 66 points respectively. Last season he held a 53.19 adjusted 5-on-5 CF% and was plus 1.82 relative to the rest of his team. He was arguably Team Russia’s best forward at the World Cup, tying for the team scoring lead with three points in four games. In the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs he posted 19 points in 17 games.

There are examples of players who have cashed in after bridge deals, such as Nashville Predators defenseman P.K. Subban who went from $2.875 million per-year to a $9 million per-year contract after his bridge deal was complete. Philadelphia Flyers captain Claude Giroux went from $3.75 million per-year to $8.275 million per-year.

Kucherov’s contract ends a busy summer for the Lightning, where they were able to lock up some of their core players. The team re-signed unrestricted free agent captain Steven Stamkos to an eight-year, $68 million contract, defenseman Victor Hedman (an RFA in 2017) to an eight-year $63 million deal that kicks in after this season and restricted free agent forward Alex Killorn to a seven-year, $31.5 million contract.

The Lightning have quite a few tough decisions ahead with Drouin, Palat and Johnson along with pending unrestricted free agent goaltender Ben Bishop. But they still have one of the best cores in the NHL together for one more shot at a Stanley Cup.

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Josh Cooper is an editor for Puck Daddy on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at puckdaddyblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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