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Lightning's time to win Stanley Cup is now

Must take advantage of general manager Steve Yzerman's maneuvers to make another run

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

Now is the time for the Tampa Bay Lightning.

After coming within two wins of the Stanley Cup two seasons ago, after coming within a win of returning to the Cup Final last season, after so much fell into place in the offseason, now is the time for them to win a championship for the first time since 2004.

Their window won't shut in a year or two or three. General manager Steve Yzerman has set them up to be good for a long, long time, and there is no reason to believe he won't continue to maneuver well. But he faces challenges in the future, and they might not have a chance quite like this again.

They best take advantage of it.

The latest coup came Tuesday, when they signed restricted free agent Nikita Kucherov to a three-year contract with an NHL salary-cap charge of $4.766 million. That's a bargain for a 23-year-old forward who scored 29 goals in the regular season and 10 in the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 2014-15, then had 30 goals in the regular season and 11 in the playoffs last season.

Video: TBL@PIT, Gm5: Kucherov nets second to even game late

That's after bargains for Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman. Stamkos, one of the game's great goal scorers, signed an eight-year contract with a cap charge of $8.5 million when he could have gotten much more in unrestricted free agency. Hedman, one of the most dynamic defensemen in the game, signed an eight-year extension that begins next season with a cap charge of $7.875 million when he could have received more on the open market.

That's after Jonathan Drouin, the No. 3 pick in the 2013 NHL Draft, dropped his trade request; after Tyler Johnson, who scored 29 goals in the regular season and 13 in the playoffs in 2014-15, recovered from the wrist injury that bothered him last season; after Slater Koekkoek, the No. 10 pick in the 2012 draft, emerged in the playoffs, allowing Yzerman to buy out Matt Carle; and after Yzerman hired assistant coach Todd Richards to help a power play that ranked 28th (15.8 percent) in the League last season.

Think of where the Lightning were a few months ago. Stamkos was heading to free agency. Drouin was sitting at home after clashing with coach Jon Cooper, demanding a trade, getting sent to the minors, sitting out in the minors and getting suspended.

But Yzerman held firm. He didn't buckle to Stamkos or Drouin. He didn't make a panic move. And he got lucky, even though it didn't look like it at the time.

Video: TOR@TBL: Hedman nets Stamkos' fine feed to pad lead

Stamkos sustained a blood clot, had surgery and sat out until Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final. Drouin, who had asked to return to the minors when he wasn't traded, rejoined the Lightning. Cooper gave him the minutes he wanted and lived with mistakes he might not have in the past. Drouin seized the opportunity and played well; eventually, Cooper called him a "pleasure to coach."

They made up. Stamkos decided to stay for less money. Hedman decided to stay for less money. The rest fell into place, including Kucherov, who decided to stay for at least the next three seasons.

Yzerman has little salary-cap space left this season. Goaltender Ben Bishop, coming off his second season as a Vezina Trophy finalist, is a pending unrestricted free agent. So is center Brian Boyle. Drouin, Johnson, Koekkoek, Nikita Nesterov, Ondrej Palat, Andrej Sustr are pending restricted free agents. Kucherov can file for arbitration when this contract expires, and he can test the open market a year after that. He likely will want to make up for what he left on the table now.

But Yzerman can trade Bishop, or hold onto him all season to go for the Cup and then let him go, because he has an excellent young goaltender in Andrei Vasilevskiy behind him. All the players in the final years of their contracts? They should be motivated to win now while this group is together and to perform for their next contracts. It's two seasons before Kucherov can sign an extension.

The Lightning's problems are good problems. Most teams would love to have them. They stem from having too many good players under the salary cap. Yzerman can't keep them all forever, but he has kept them all for this season.

Time to make another run, and to finish it.

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