Tampa Bay Lightning forward and reigning leading scorer Nikita Kucherov is under contract for one more season and wasn't slated to become a restricted free agent until the conclusion of the upcoming 2018-19 season.
Negotiations between Kucherov's camp and Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman on a new deal didn't appear to be imminent.
But on Tuesday, somewhat unexpectedly, the Lightning announced an eight-year contract extension for Kucherov with an annual average value of $9.5 million dollars, ensuring the All-Star winger will remain in a Tampa Bay sweater through the 2026-27 season and making him the highest-paid player on the Bolts.
While talking to local media at the Clearwater Ice Arena following an offseason workout, Kucherov was asked why sign the extension now when another good season on the ice could lead to an even richer contract the following offseason.
"Why wait?" Kucherov replied with a smile.
Video: Nikita Kucherov on signing extension
Indeed, Kucherov wanted to solidify his place among the core group of Lightning players committed to the franchise for the foreseeable future, and Yzerman wanted to lock up an important piece of the team as soon as possible.
"My thought is we get the opportunity to open negotiations after July 1 of the last year of their contract," Yzerman explained. "Let's sit down with the player and their agent to see if we can get something done early. From a player's perspective, I think it eases their mind and they can plan their future a little bit. And from the team's perspective, it helps us going forward knowing the cap number of the player, knowing the commitment we have to make other decisions accordingly."
Before the 2016-17 season, Kucherov signed a three-year bridge deal at a relatively bargain $4.76 million AAV. Then he went out and proved he's one of the best young players in the National Hockey League and deserving of long-term, high-dollar commitment from the Lightning. Over the past two seasons, Kucherov has tallied 185 points, second most in the League. Only Edmonton's Connor McDavid (208 pts.) has recorded more. Kucherov's 79 goals over the last two seasons are third most in the NHL behind Washington's Alex Ovechkin (82 goals) and Winnipeg's Patrik Laine (80 goals).
Extrapolating further, over the last four seasons Kucherov ranks fourth in the NHL for scoring (316 pts.) and tied for third for goals (138).
This past season, Kucherov finished third in the NHL scoring race with 100 points and became just the third player in Lightning history to record 100 points in a season, joining Vincent Lecavalier (108 pts. in 2006-07) and Martin St. Louis (102 pts. in 2006-07). He's one of only six Russian-born players to hit the 100-point mark in a NHL season along with Alex Ovechkin (4 times), Evgeni Malkin (3x), Alexander Mogilny (2x), Pavel Bure (2x) and Sergei Federov (2x) and the first to do so since Malkin in 2011-12.
Kucherov set career highs for assists (61), points, penalty minutes (42), power-play points (36) and shots (279) in 2017-18, and his 39 goals ranked tied for ninth in the NHL, one off his career high of 40 established a season earlier.
Kucherov is just as prolific in the playoffs. Since the 2015 postseason, Kucherov ranks second in the NHL for both playoff goals (28) and points (71). He's been selected for the past two NHL All-Star Games and became the first player since the start of the 3-on-3 ASG format to record a hat trick when he accomplished the feat on home ice during the 2018 showcase at Tampa's AMALIE Arena. At the 2018 NHL Awards, Kucherov was voted to his first career First All-Star Team, joining teammate Victor Hedman.
For the former 2011 Second Round draft pick (58th overall), signing an extension now with Tampa Bay as opposed to next offseason takes some of the guesswork out of the upcoming season.
"Definitely huge for me and for my family to be finally locked up for long term here," Kucherov said. "To be able to not think about the contract and stuff during the season, to get that re-signed right now, I'm happy to be here and happy to be in Tampa. We have a good chance to win the Stanley Cup and that's the reason that I like Tampa."
The Lightning now have a number of their core pieces under contract for the foreseeable future. Captain Steven Stamkos is locked up through 2023-24, meaning the Bolts' top two scorers from last season, Kucherov and Stamkos, will remain with the team for at least six more seasons. Top defensemen Victor Hedman (signed through 2024-25) and Ryan McDonagh (signed through 2025-26) inked lengthy extensions. Forwards Ondrej Palat (signed through 2021-22), J.T. Miller (signed through 2022-23) and Tyler Johnson (signed through 2023-24) will also remain with the Lightning long term.
The number of top players under team control for multiple years was a primary reason Kucherov wanted to get his deal done right away. The Lightning are Stanley Cup contenders now and certainly look to remain that way in the future. Kucherov wanted to be with the group to potentially get the team over the hump and win the organization's second Stanley Cup.
"We have a good team and good coaching staff. Every year we have a chance," he said. "It's a good thing that we're always going to be able to compete for a Stanley Cup Final. It's a good chance for us to win a Cup, and I'm just happy to be a part of it."