TAMPA — For those quick to accuse the Lightning of shady dealings in putting their best player on long-term injured reserve to become salary-cap compliant before the season, know that this process wasn’t fun for Nikita Kucherov, either.
In his final media availability before the offseason Thursday, Carolina defenseman Dougie Hamilton threw a match on the fire of the cap controversy that has followed the Lightning all season, wondering whether the Hurricanes would have had a better shot at unseating the Lightning in the second round of the playoffs if they had used long-term injured reserve as Tampa Bay did.
The Lightning put nearly $18 million of salaries, including Kucherov’s $9.5 million paycheck for this season, on the list to comply with the league’s $81.5 million cap. The move was made for Kucherov because of hip surgery in late December that the Lightning said would keep him out for the regular season. The usual recovery time for surgery like Kucherov had is five to six months, a time period that covered this coronavirus-abbreviated regular season that started in January.
So the Lightning was able to avoid some difficulties restructuring a roster that likely would have left them as something less than the team that stands eight wins from winning a second straight Stanley Cup.
Kucherov was back for the first game of the playoffs May 16 against the Panthers and had two goals and an assist in a 5-4 win. Now the Lightning are back in the league’s final four, and Kucherov leads the league with 18 postseason points. He has added a spark to Tampa Bay’s top-ranked postseason power play and is making everyone around him better, which has brought the Lightning’s use of long-term injured reserve back into the spotlight.
Speaking Friday in advance of the semifinal series against the Islanders, which starts Sunday, Kucherov said he didn’t make the rules and talked about his recovery process.
“Missing a whole year, you ask any player, you don’t want to be that guy,” Kucherov said. “It’s been tough to watch the game from my house or from the stands, or through the treatments, working out, skating by myself.
“I didn’t do it on purpose, obviously. I had to do the surgery. I had to go through the whole five months of rehabilitation, and when the time came (when) I was ready to play, it was the playoffs.”
While he was out, Kucherov watched games at Amalie Arena from above the ice, where he could see action develop, and broke down plays in his mind, anticipating how he’d react if he had been on the ice with his teammates.
“It’s just mentally tough,” Kucherov said. “But I had to go through it, and I think I got better at it looking at the game from a different standpoint, like on power plays, how the team plays, how the team defends, how much time I would have if I was there.”
Kucherov said he grew frustrated by the monotony of his rehabilitation and hated going to the gym every day for the same routine while his teammates were chasing a postseason spot.
“It’s really annoying, and you get down on yourself sometimes,” Kucherov said. “You want to go out there and play, and instead you go to the gym and do the rehab stuff. It was tough. You get home from the game and guys are feeling good, and I’m like, ‘Tomorrow is the same thing.’
“So I was trying to find a way to stay positive and to be with my family a little bit, too, see my son grow. That helped me a lot, getting away from the game a little bit and not thinking too much about it. It wasn’t easy, but I think I got a lot stronger mentally, and I understand what it takes to go through it.”
Those close to Kucherov constantly talk about his hockey IQ, his knack for slowing the game and anticipating the next move. Lightning forward Brayden Point is a dart; he creates opportunities with his speed. Steven Stamkos snipes from his office in the left circle. But Kucherov is the engine that makes the offense run.
Coach Jon Cooper said he saw Kucherov, who turns 28 on Thursday, develop mental strength before the injury.
Cooper said Kucherov took his biggest step following the Lightning’s abrupt first-round playoff loss to the Blue Jackets in 2019. The following season, Cooper said, he noticed that Kucherov wouldn’t get rattled when things didn’t go his way. When teams tried to get physical with him, he didn’t fall for the bait. Instead, Kucherov channeled his energy into making opponents pay on the ice. And when Tampa Bay needed Kucherov to carry it during the playoffs, he did it with calm and composure.
“That’s the huge mental growth, but it’s tough,” Cooper said. “Hockey players, their shelf life is their 20s, and if they’re lucky, you get to play into your early 30s now. And if you lose a whole year, that has to be tough. I understand players are getting paid and stuff like that, but there’s so much more to it. It’s your job, and you don’t get to play it forever, and to have one of those years taken away, that has to be tough on your mind.
“I’m so glad that he’s getting to play now in the playoffs, because it’s had to be a grueling time to sit out in rehab and not having any control whether your team is going to make the playoffs, because that’s the only way you get to play. And the guys, one of the big things was, let’s make the playoffs so that Kucherov has some semblance of a year, and it’s paying off for him.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @EddieintheYard.
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