Lightning's Kucherov out for regular season

By Eduardo A. Encina
Tampa Bay Times/TNS

TAMPA, Fla. - The Lightning will have to defend their Stanley Cup championship without their leading scorer - at least through the regular season.

Lightning winger Nikita Kucherov has hip surgery scheduled for next week and is expected to miss the entire 56-game regular season, general manager Julien BriseBois announced Wednesday.

The team hopes to have Kucherov back in time for the playoffs, which start in mid-May, but the Lightning will have to get there without him.

“Those are the cards that we’ve been dealt,” BriseBois said. “No one loves playing hockey more than Nikita Kucherov. I know how much it pains him and that he will be missing the regular season. I also know how hard he’s going to work to get back as soon as possible.

“And now it’s our job as a group - players, coaches, management - to get ourselves into the playoffs so that we give ‘Kuch’ an opportunity to compete this year and help us defend the Stanley Cup championship, as we’re chasing another one.”

Kucherov first reported discomfort in his hip on Dec. 3, BriseBois said. He received treatment that included a cortisone injection, but the injury didn’t improve. The team received another evaluation from hip specialist Dr. Bryan Kelly in New York. The surgery is similar to those performed on Lightning players Brayden Point and Yanni Gourde, who both returned to full strength.

“Everyone felt that it was the best thing to do to have the surgery now,” BriseBois said. “Dr. Kelly felt that with this type of injury, the sooner in your career you have the surgery, the better the likelihood is that you will come back just as good if not better than ever. So factoring in that, and the fact that it was looking like it was going to be impossible for ‘Kuch’ to fight through four months of this and then playoffs, we felt the timing was best to have the surgery now.”

Kucherov’s injury gives the Lightning an easier, though unfortunate, way to get under the $81.5 million salary cap. The team will retain its top three restricted free-agent targets. They re-signed defensemen Mikhail Sergachev and Erik Cernak and have a deal in place to retain forward Anthony Cirelli. Placing Kucherov on long term injury reserve will give the team the necessary relief to get under the cap.

Even with the LTIR relief from Kucherov’s injury, the Lightning don’t have much maneuverability, so BriseBois is still trying to clear additional space to give the team some added spending flexibility.

“At least now, I know that if none of those trade talks come to an agreement, at least we’ll be able to to be cap-compliant and that the roster is going to include a lot of really good players, some high-end players, and when I look at the team on paper, it’s a really competitive team,” he said. “Now we have to go out there and do it on the ice.”

The team moved to trade forward Tyler Johnson during the offseason to free up space. BriseBois said three teams were interested in dealing for him during the league’s pause, but when BriseBois reached back out to those teams this offseason, two no longer had interest and the other was in a cap crunch.

“If Tyler Johnson is on my team to start the year, I think that’s a good thing, because Tyler Johnson is a good player. He’s going to help us win hockey games, and ultimately that’s what I want to do,” BriseBois said. “… The reality is not that long ago he scored 27 even-strength goals in a single season. He just won the Stanley Cup playing on the second line of our team.”

Though losing Kucherov is devastating to the Lightning - the 27-year-old Russian won the Art Ross and Hart Memorial Trophy two years ago after leading the league with 128 points and led the Lightning last season with 85 points in the regular season and 34 in the playoffs - BriseBois expects captain Steven Stamkos to be ready for the start of the season, and the entire core from last year’s Cup-winning team returns.

“Teams lose high-end players every year,” BriseBois said. “It’s part of the challenge of winning at the NHL level. The competitive balance is tremendous in our league, it has been for a number of years now, and it’s a grind to make the playoffs. It’s certainly not easy. ... It wasn’t going to be easy even with ‘Kuch’ in the lineup, and now it’s more of a challenge.

“But from my conversation with a number of our players over the last few days — although it wasn’t official at the time that ‘Kuch’ was going to be missing the regular season — the mindset of the players as a whole and the hunger and how excited they are to get a chance to chase another Cup and go back-to-back, which is a really rare feat in our league and quite the accomplishment, I’ve just been really, really struck by how positive everyone’s mindset is, and I like where everyone’s head is at right now.”

Tampa Bay Lightning winger Nikita Kucherov is expected to miss the entire regular season following hip surgery.