Random Thoughts On The NHL – June 16, 2021
Some folks believe the Tampa Bay Lightning circumvented the salary-cap system when Nikita Kucherov returned to the lineup in time for the playoffs after missing the regular season recovering from hip surgery.
The Lightning were facing a big salary-cap crunch approaching the start of this season. They were sitting above the $81.5 million ceiling and had to be cap compliant when the season began in mid-January. They unsuccessfully attempted to move a fading Tyler Johnson and his $5-million cap hit via trade or waivers. Speculation suggested they’d have to part with someone like Alex Killorn or perhaps convince Ondrej Palat to waive his no-trade clause.
Kucherov underwent hip surgery on Dec. 29 with a recovery period of four to five months. By placing him on long-term injury reserve, the Lightning garnered $9.5 million in cap relief. Not only did they not have to make a cost-cutting trade, but they also had sufficient wiggle room to take on defenseman David Savard at the trade deadline.
Because the salary cap only applies during the regular season, Kucherov’s return when the playoffs began raised some eyebrows. Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Dougie Hamilton seemed to stoke that fire following his club’s second-round elimination by the Lightning, claiming they were beaten by a team sitting $18 million over the cap.
Lightning general manager Julien BriseBois pointed out Kucherov’s status was investigated by the league and no wrongdoing was found. Kucherov, meanwhile, said he had to have the surgery and took the necessary time to recover. He also said he didn’t make the rules regarding LTIR.
Yes, the Lightning circumvented the salary cap, but only because they’re allowed to do so under the terms of the collective bargaining agreement. Long-term injury reserve allow cap-strapped teams the flexibility to replace players who could miss a significant portion of the regular season.
A team with limited salary cap space can exceed the cap by the equivalent of the injured player’s salary to bring in a replacement, provided they are cap compliant when the sidelined player is medically cleared to return to action.
This isn’t the first time an NHL team has gone this route. In February 2015, the Chicago Blackhawks placed superstar winger Patrick Kane on LTIR with a broken collarbone. Kane missed the remainder of the regular season, allowing the Blackhawks to use the cap relief to bring in Antoine Vermette, Kimmo Timonen and Andrew Desjardins. Kane returned for the start of the playoffs, and the Blackhawks subsequently won the Stanley Cup.
That issue was discussed during a meeting of NHL general managers in March 2016. The league had the opportunity to close that loophole with the NHLPA during last year’s CBA extension negotiations but nothing came of it.
Either there wasn’t sufficient time to hammer out a suitable change to the LTIR rule or both sides saw little reason to change it.
The New York Post’s Larry Brooks pointed to the Lightning’s cap payroll (and that of the Vegas Golden Knights) as proof the hard salary cap is a myth because those teams play in places without state taxes. That means they’re able to sign players for less than what they would’ve sought from teams in taxed states and provinces.
Brooks also praised the management of the Lightning and Golden Knights for managing their cap payrolls better than other clubs in non-tax states like the Dallas Stars, Nashville Predators, and Florida Panthers.
Despite that advantage, the Lightning and Golden Knights will soon discover how difficult it is to maintain a Stanley Cup contender under the salary-cap system.
If not for Kucherov going on LTIR to start this season, the Lightning would’ve lost a key player like Alex Killorn. They’re sitting above the cap by over $5 million for next season, and while they’ll likely try to swing a deal with the Seattle Kraken to get them to take Tyler Johnson and his $5 million, they’ll still have to shed salary to find sufficient cap space to fill out the rest of their roster. They’ll likely lose David Savard and wingers Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow to this summer’s free-agent market.
The Golden Knights, meanwhile, have over $2.4 million in cap room with top-three defenseman Alec Martinez slated to become an unrestricted free agent. They’ll have to pare that down if they hope to clear more room to re-sign him.
Even if their respective managements can minimize the damage and remain Cup contenders next season, the long-range outlook isn’t good.
Golden Knights veterans Marc-Andre Fleury and Reilly Smith are UFAs in 2022 while promising defenseman Zach Whitecloud is a restricted free agent. It’s worse for the Lightning, with over $70 million invested in 12 players in 2022-23. Brayden Point becomes a restricted free agent next summer while Ondrej Palat is due for UFA status.
Pierre-Luc Dubois had a disappointing performance with the Winnipeg Jets following his trade from the Columbus Blue Jackets in January. The expectation is he’ll bounce back next season and regain his solid two-way form.
But what happens if he doesn’t? He will become a restricted free agent next summer with arbitration rights whose actual salary for 2021-22 is $6.65 million. The Jets will have to spend that much to just qualify his rights.
That would leave general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff facing a tough decision. Attempt to re-sign Dubois or try to trade him. Considering he gave up Patrik Laine and Jack Roslovic to the Blue Jackets to get the 22-year-old center, either choice could provide fodder for Cheveldayoff’s critics.