Random Thoughts On The NHL – June 16, 2021

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.

Tampa Bay Lightning winger Nikita Kucherov (NHL Images)

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.










Random Thoughts on the NHL – June 7, 2021

Random Thoughts on the NHL – June 7, 2021

The Ottawa Sun’s Don Brennan floated the theory that the reason Colorado Avalanche center Nathan MacKinnon didn’t get enough votes for the Ted Lindsay Award was his peers are pissed at him because his salary is so low. MacKinnon has an annual average value of $6.3 million on his current contract, ranking 92nd among the highest-paid NHL players.

Colorado Avalanche center Nathan MacKinnon (NHL Images).

A tiny flaw in that theory: they voted for MacKinnon as a finalist in 2018 and again in 2020.

As for his salary, he signed his current deal on July 8, 2016, following his entry-level contract. At the time, he was coming off a 21-goal, 52-point performance in 2015-16. Even by today’s standards, he got a healthy raise for a young player yet to reach his full potential.

Sure, folks were a little puzzled over why the NHLPA membership passed over MacKinnon for his good friend Sidney Crosby. No offense to the Pittsburgh Penguins captain but his fellow Cole Harbour, NS native had a better season. Whatever the reason, it had nothing to do with a contract MacKinnon signed nearly five years ago before he became a superstar.

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I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: The Toronto Maple Leafs wouldn’t be in the mess they’re in now if they hadn’t signed John Tavares in 2018.

That’s not a knock against Tavares. He didn’t hold a gun to the collective heads of Leafs president Brendan Shanahan and general manager Kyle Dubas. They reached out to him. They gave him the opportunity to play for his hometown team. They had no problem ponying up $11 million annually for seven years.

For the most part, Tavares has held up his end of the bargain, averaging a point per game over the last three seasons. The problem is they invested big money in a player they didn’t need.

When the Leafs signed Tavares, they were coming off a season that saw them finish fourth in the league in goals-per-game average (3.29). Meanwhile, their shots-against per game (33.9) was the fourth-highest.

Everyone knew the Leafs’ defensive game was their Achilles’ heel, and yet they went out and blew big bucks on a scoring forward.

The Tavares contract leaves the Leafs squeezed for cap space. It’s the reason why Dubas and Brandon Pridham, the Leafs’ trusty capologist, had to make cost-cutting moves to free up long-term cap space to re-sign Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander. It’s why they settled for cheap veteran quick fixes last fall that didn’t pan out. And it’s why this team struggles to find the right chemistry to end its 17-year streak of postseason failure.

Trading Tavares is the easiest way to free up the dollars to resolve that issue but it’s not going to happen. His full no-movement clause puts an end to that notion. Even without it, his annual cap hit for the next four seasons is as good as a no-movement clause in this flat-cap environment.

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Everyone expects the Columbus Blue Jackets to trade Seth Jones after the 26-year-old defenseman stated his intent to test next year’s unrestricted free agent market. They cannot go through next season with his impending departure becoming an unnecessary distraction for his teammates.

Jones will draw plenty of interest in this summer’s trade market. He’s a big, minute-munching, all-around right-side blueliner. He had a down season in 2020-21 which affected his stats and analytic numbers, but there’s isn’t a general manager in the league who wouldn’t want him on their roster.

The Blue Jackets will probably try to get a significant return heavy on futures (draft picks, prospects) as they attempt to rebuild and change their culture. However, his contract status will affect his trade value. The Jackets could get a better deal if he agrees to a contract extension with the acquiring club.










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