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Nikita Kucherov returns to practice with new contract

Lightning signed restricted free agent forward for three years on Tuesday

by Corey Long / Correspondent

BRANDON, Fla. -- Tampa Bay Lightning forward Nikita Kucherov joined his teammates on the ice for practice one day after signing a three-year contract with an average annual value of $4.766 million.

Kucherov, who became a restricted free agent on July 1, skated on a line with Tyler Johnson and Alex Killorn in practice and said he was pleased to be back with Tampa Bay. 

"I'm happy that the contract was resolved and happy to be back around with my teammates," Kucherov, 23, said. "It's tough to sit at home and watch the guys out there at training camp."

Kucherov, led Lightning with 66 points and had his first 30-goal season. He was their top scorer in the Stanley Cup Playoffs with 11 goals and eight assists in 17 games with captain Steven Stamkos missing all but one playoff game with a blood clot in his shoulder.

Kucherov was in line for a long-term contract but opted for a bridge contract that worked within the Lightning's NHL salary-cap space. Tampa Bay signed Stamkos, defenseman Victor Hedman, forwards Alex Killorn and Vladislav Namestnikov and goalies Kristers Gudlevskis and Andrei Vasilevskiy to contracts this offseason. According to General Fanager, the Lightning have $1,069,169 remaining under the salary cap.

"I don't want to get into the details," Kucherov said. "I thought the shorter-term deal was the best for me right now considering the situation."

Kucherov said it was important for him to be ready for the season opener against the Detroit Red Wings at Amalie Arena on Thursday (7 p.m. ET; FS-D, SUN).

"I wanted it to get done, I tried to stay positive and let my agents handle it," Kucherov said. "I always stayed optimistic about it."

Lightning coach Jon Cooper said it was important for the Lightning to have Kucherov to start the season.

"Of course we're glad he's back,'' Cooper said. "He's a big part of our team, and to see him zipping around out there it's gratifying because you want to put your best foot forward. Early in the season you can't let games slip, we can't guarantee we're going to win our games, but you want to put your best foot forward."

Although Kucherov missed training camp, he remained in shape, playing for Team Russia at the World Cup of Hockey 2016 in Toronto.

"Obviously it's a tough tournament and you play against the best players," Kucherov said. "It was something new for me. I had never been in a tournament like that before to start the season. It helped me."

Cooper said with most of the Lightning's contract issues resolved, it allows everyone to focus on the season.

"The less you have to think about the better and you can just concentrate on hockey," Cooper said. "You look at the Stamkos situation last year and you can say he was putting it behind him but it's hard to do. There's a little part of you in the back of your head wondering, 'What's next?'"

Stamkos, Killorn and Hedman signed contracts seemingly below market value to help the Lightning retain most of their top players.

"It's nice to have those guys do it and it shows who they are as [people]," Kucherov said. "They are great teammates."

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