In praise of the Lightning, Nikita Kucherov and salary-cap gymnastics

Sports

The Tampa Bay Lightning had Nikita Kucherov and his $9.5 million salary-cap hit on the shelf for the entire regular season, only to have him recover in time to score two goals in their first game of the 2021 NHL playoffs.

This is some next-level hockey villainy (at least to some outside observers).

To summarize:

  • They win the Stanley Cup last season.

  • With the salary cap flat and their contract numbers rising, it was assumed they’d have to break up parts of the roster to be cap-compliant.

  • Kucherov’s offseason hip surgery provided them with the opportunity to put him on long-term injured reserve, so they could keep players they might have otherwise traded, while signing others with the usual Floridian tax rate discount, which always earns envious scorn from opposing fans.

  • The Lightning finished the season third in the Central Division.

  • Kucherov was ready to return for the start of the postseason against the Florida Panthers. He has four points through two games — both of them Tampa wins — so far.

If you think this is cheating, too bad. The Lightning earned the cheat. They built a roster that withstood the loss of captain Steven Stamkos for all but one game of the playoffs last season to win the Stanley Cup. They built a roster that could withstand the loss of Nikita Kucherov for 56 games and still qualify for the postseason.

This should be celebrated. In a league full of bungling mismanagement and salary-cap horror shows, the meticulously constructed and managed Lightning earned their cheat as much as they earned their championship.

“It’s a salary-cap world. If I’m on Tampa, I’m stoked about it, so I can’t really chirp it too much,” Dallas Stars center Tyler Seguin told ESPN recently.

Seguin considered “pulling a Kucherov” himself after two offseason surgeries sidelined him for most of the 2021 season. But Dallas didn’t have the luxury of cruising into the playoffs without a star player, so he returned for three late-season games as the Stars tried — and failed — to make the playoffs.

I asked him how he felt about the Kucherov maneuver. “You’re definitely flirting with the line of what’s right and wrong,” he said.

But the Lightning were, by the letter of the collectively bargained salary-cap law, on the right side of the line.


The NHL believes the Lightning did not circumvent the salary cap. Kucherov’s timeline on long-term injured reserve was approved by the NHL. Its inspections into his status found satisfactory evidence that the Lightning weren’t keeping a healthy player out of their lineup, and there are checks on the process that would have ensured that being the case.

How it works: When a team has an injured player out of the lineup for a few games, they don’t have to file anything with the league. If a player is out for seven days or more, he’s eligible to go on injured reserve, and the team puts in a request with the league to replace his roster spot, but not his cap space. The doctor signs off on that form and says the player is going to be out for at least seven days. The player signs off on it, too. The NHL might ask for more information about the injury, but there’s no documentation required to be filed.

The long-term injured reserve, and the cap relief that comes with it, is when a player is diagnosed with an injury that will take “the longer of 10 games or 28 days” or more. There’s a form the team must submit that spells out the medical procedure being done and how long the player will be out of the lineup. The doctor or doctors sign off on the sheet, as do the team and the player himself.

In a memo to the teams each season, the NHL clearly states that they can’t keep a healthy player on long-term injured reserve for cap reasons. From time to time, it will check in with teams to see how the injury rehab is progressing. There’s another check on the process from the NHLPA. If he’s healthy and being kept out of the lineup, the player can go to the PA to set wheels in motion with the NHL on resolving the matter.

“If the player was actually healthy and able to return to play and you’re keeping him out of the lineup and can’t fit him in, that would be a cap circumvention. They warn you about that all the time,” said one NHL capologist I spoke to this week.

The Lightning are not, of course, the first team to work the system. On Feb. 24, 2015, Chicago Blackhawks star Patrick Kane fractured his collarbone. The team placed him on long-term injured reserve and the prognosis was 12 weeks of recovery, which would have meant a return for the Western Conference finals. The Blackhawks used the open cap space to add three players at the trade deadline who fit snugly into Kane’s cap space — and Kane returned to play in the first game of the Stanley Cup playoffs, scoring 23 points in 23 games as the Blackhawks won the Cup.

“I see the parallel. In this situation, it’s been done before. It’s just that with the marquee players, everyone kind of freaks out, and when it’s not with the marquee players, no one really cares,” said the capologist.

“The CBA allows you to replace players’ cap hits when they’re out for a long time. Which I think is fair. If your star player is out for three months, it’s fair that you are allowed to use that cap space to replace him with a player or players. You got unlucky, so we’re going to help you out here. It’s not cap circumvention. You’re just using the rules to your advantage.”

Not against the rules. But perhaps against the spirit of the collective bargaining agreement?

Ugh, that phrase. It’s the one the NHL used back in 2013 when it instituted the so-called “Roberto Luongo rule,” which retroactively punished teams that handed out “back-diving” contracts. You know, the ones where an All-Star player made minimum wage for the last four years of their deal to bring down the total cap hit?

Those contracts were legal at the time and approved by the NHL, but the teams were eventually punished for having the audacity to find loopholes in the cap system they helped create.

“You’re never trying to circumvent the cap. You don’t want to get too deep into the gray area. But you’re constantly trying to find ways to maximize the efficiency of your cap hits. You’re trying to use all the rules to your ability. You’re looking for loopholes or gray area, but you have to be careful. The league has full jurisdiction. There can be serious penalties and there’s no recourse against it,” said the capologist.

Like, for example, when the NHL went after the New Jersey Devils for a 17-year, $102 million contract they handed Ilya Kovalchuk that resulted in a $3 million fine and multiple draft pick losses. (The NHL would eventually cut the fine in half and allowed them to keep their first-round pick.)

My unsubstantiated theory on the NHL and the salary cap, Part 1: The league sees a difference between putting a player on long-term injured reserve to work around the cap and messing around with contract numbers to work around the cap, because one requires sacrifice while the other does not. The Blackhawks played without Kane. The Lightning played without Kucherov. There was no sacrifice in Luongo earning $1 million in salary for the last two years of a 12-year contract. Well, other than his trade value.

Let’s say the NHL sees the Kucherov thing as a “spirit of the CBA violation.” Wouldn’t one remedy be to have a salary cap in the postseason, too?

I asked a few sources why there isn’t a salary cap in the playoffs. The most common response was “I don’t know” followed by “maybe because the players don’t get paid in the playoffs?”

One source mentioned the roster issues that teams have under the salary cap, particularly under the flat cap. Remember the Vegas Golden Knights dressing only 15 skaters in a game against the Colorado Avalanche this season? Could you imagine a circumstance where that happens in the playoffs?

The NHL capologist I spoke with believes that having a postseason salary cap would mean the end of shenanigans.

“Philosophically, it’s too big of a benefit to the team to be able to fully replace his cap hit and then add him back in for the playoffs,” he said. “I think there should be some rules put in place. Maybe instead of the salary cap in the playoffs, you get an extra three league-minimum [salary] players to expand your roster to replace players in case of injury.”

I just don’t see that happening because …

My unsubstantiated theory on the NHL and the salary cap, Part 2: I think the NHL allows teams to ice whatever lineup they want in the playoffs as a reward for qualifying for the postseason, and to ensure that its signature tournament is allowed to exist unconstrained by the salary cap. My capologist saw some merit with this theory. “I think they’re just looking at what’s good for the game. The fan experience. I guess they just think that,” he said.

It’s good for the game — but maybe not the Panthers — to have Kucherov in the lineup for the Lightning, as it was to have Kane in the lineup for the Blackhawks in the playoffs. Even if it violates the “spirit of the CBA” in the regular season.

“The intention of what I would want for the cap, I don’t think they would want situations like this to happen,” said the capologist. “But it’s an extreme example. So many things have to align.”

That’s the most important takeaway from all of this, actually. This was an anomaly. If it wasn’t a 56-game season, the Lightning likely couldn’t have had Kucherov on the shelf for the entirety of the campaign.

The NHL general managers met in 2016 to discuss the Patrick Kane situation and what to do about it. They did nothing. Perhaps they’ll discuss Kucherov in their next meeting. Hopefully they do nothing. The rarity of this scenario doesn’t necessitate action by the league.

Sometimes they get it: Just because an ice resurfacing machine driver beat the Maple Leafs as an emergency backup goalie doesn’t mean the EBUG rules needed reforming.

Sometimes they don’t get it, which is why we have the current convoluted offside review process because Matt Duchene was a mile offside and scored a goal in the 2013 playoffs.

No, the only thing that should come out of the Kucherov situation — which isn’t cap circumvention but just sorta feels like they circumvented the cap — is an acknowledgement that the Tampa Bay Lightning are playing 4-D salary cap chess, and that there’s a league of fans waiting for them to get their comeuppance for their perceived hubris.


Three things about the first round

1. It’s rare that Game 1 of a playoff series gets the entire hockey world buzzing, but the Lightning have done it in consecutive opening rounds. Their first playoff game last postseason was that five-overtime classic against the Columbus Blue Jackets in the Toronto bubble. Their first playoff game this season against the Florida Panthers was one of the most entertaining hockey games of the past five years. It had speed, passion, brutality and offensive flow. (Brayden Point, we should note, won both of these games with a goal for Tampa.)

It was the kind of hockey game that makes new hockey fans. Sean Gentille from The Athletic documented that in a story this week, finding Floridian fans tuning into hockey for the first time. “Is this how they are normally? Is it this exciting? I might have to get into this.” Indeed.

2. It’s going to be interesting to see how the NHL reacts to the intensity of these playoffs. It’s clear that familiarity breeds contempt. Is there an argument to be made to dump the wild card and move back to a traditional “four teams from each division make the playoffs” format? Maybe. But the NHL is enamored with parity and having multiple paths to the playoffs for teams in the races.

One thing is clear: The intensity of these rivalry series early in the playoffs is going to be used as a cudgel against those who want something like a 1-through-16 tournament, if that ever was a possibility.

3. Seeing fans back at a playoff game is as jarring as it is joyous. But mostly joyous. “Watching Florida and Carolina gives me envy and hope,” said Winnipeg’s Blake Wheeler. “Especially this time of year, to see people back in the buildings down there, is a sight for sore eyes.”

And sore ears. The last year of artificial crowd noise was a reasonable facsimile of an NHL audience. What we lost during that time was spontaneity. Those moments where a crowd starts to roar with anticipation of a play. Or reacts to something the TV cameras don’t pick up. Or spontaneously decides to lift up the home team with a cheer or a chant. Hearing the euphoria in the Hurricanes’ crowd during their first two home games … it hit me right in the feels. As it did Alex Nedeljkovic:

That’s so beautiful.


Winners and losers of the week

Winner: True North

The Winnipeg Jets were without Nikolaj Ehlers, without Pierre-Luc Dubois, playing against an Edmonton Oilers team that beat them in seven of nine games this season and against Connor McDavid, who scored 22 points against them in nine games in the regular season. So of course they take Game 1 on the road. Because it’s the Cup ™.

Loser: False positives

What a mess this week. The Blues and Golden Knights both had positive COVID-19 test results this week that they suspected were testing errors by the same lab. The players were isolated and tested again, and it all came back negative. It’s beyond frustrating to think that the Blues were close to losing several key players due to a lab’s mistake. Not to mention how much these players have gone through this season, to have that kind of ordeal in the playoffs due to “peculiarities” with the analysis.

Winner: Taylor Hall

It’s just wonderful to watch a determined and motivated Taylor Hall do his thing in the playoffs with ridiculous goals like this:

Loser: Draft lottery

The NHL released its draft lottery probabilities this week, with the Buffalo Sabres leading the field with a 16.6% chance at winning the lottery. Except … that’s not quite correct. The league included Arizona in its probabilities. But the Coyotes do not have a first-round pick, as they had to forfeit it for violating the NHL combine testing policy during the 2019-20 season. So the Sabres actually have a 17.1% chance according to Micah Blake McCurdy, who published the “real” lottery odds:

Winner: Rick Tocchet

The Coyotes’ loss appears to be someone else’s gain. Rick Tocchet interviewed for the New York Rangers and Seattle Kraken coaching openings, and there are obviously more opportunities beyond those teams. I still like Gerard Gallant for the Rangers. But Tocchet as the “players’ coach” with the Kraken? I’m intrigued.

Loser: Canucks’ timing

The reports are that Vancouver GM Jim Benning is returning next season, potentially with Henrik and Daniel Sedin working under him as a distraction … er, sorry, as assistants to the hockey operations department. But if the Canucks get off to a middling start next season, and there are fans back in the arena, there are going to be thunderous “FIRE BENNING!” chants to go along with the airplane banners that share the sentiment. And then he’ll be fired anyway, months after he should have been.

Winner: Flower

What a story Marc-Andre Fleury has been this season. From having his crease taken from him last postseason, through an offseason where it looked like he might be a salary-cap sacrifice, to a regular season that (hopefully, if the general managers are smart) results in a Vezina Trophy nomination, to excelling in the first two games against the Minnesota Wild, where he has a .969 save percentage. The Knights broke their goalie rotation to give Fleury the Game 2 start. After his effort in the win, it might be the decision of the series.

Loser: Ratatouille

Boston fans aren’t fond of “The Perfection Line,” the commonly accepted nickname for the Bruins’ top line of Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand. There’s a movement afoot to rename it “The Ratatouille Line,” after the Disney film. Because Bergeron is French, Pastrnak’s nickname is “Pasta” and Marchand is, well, a rat. It’s great in theory … except there’s no pasta in ratatouille. Unless this is a reference to the protagonist Alfredo Linguini, in which case maybe a further discussion is required.


Puck headlines

In case you missed this from your friends at ESPN

How the Winnipeg Jets plan to stop Connor McDavid. So far, so good.

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