TAMPA — The chatter began even before Nikita Kucherov returned to the ice. The Lightning were, the whispers went, manipulating the salary cap by hiding one of the NHL’s most accomplished players on long-term injured reserve. Once Kucherov started working his typical magic against the Florida Panthers in the first round, the chatter exploded into full-blown accusations and conspiracy theories on social media and radio.
Now that Carolina has been dispatched by Tampa Bay in the second round, the issue has been raised anew by defenseman Dougie Hamilton, who said, in a matter-of-fact way, that the Hurricanes had been defeated by a team that was $18 million over the salary cap.
Okay, so two points I want to make here:
1. Hamilton is right.
2. So what?
Let’s address these points one at a time. First of all, what Hamilton said was technically accurate.
Between Kucherov, Marian Gaborik, Anders Nilsson and a brief stay by Steven Stamkos, the Lightning spent roughly $18 million higher than the $81.5 million salary cap by putting players on the long-term injured list. This is completely within the NHL’s rules. The idea is that teams should not be penalized for losing a top player to a major injury, which is exactly what happened with Kucherov after his December hip surgery.
Since the salary cap is not enforced during the postseason, Kucherov was free to return once his rehab was completed. (Which means the Lightning’s active roster is only about $9 million above the salary cap during the playoffs, but that’s splitting hairs.)
The anger seems to stem from the idea that Kucherov is skating without pain, and with much grace, during the postseason. He leads the NHL with 18 points (five goals, 13 assists) through Tampa Bay’s first 11 games. This leads to insinuations that the former MVP was healthy before the playoffs began and the Lightning kept him hidden on LTIR longer than necessary to stay cap-compliant.
The problem with this theory is that Kucherov’s five-month recovery was consistent with players who’d had similar surgeries, and the NHL had done its own investigation to make sure nothing shady was going on.
“I didn’t make the rules, whether it’s cap space or something like that,” Kucherov said Friday. “It’s not me, I didn’t do it on purpose. I had to do the surgery.”
And that brings us to the second point. The “way-to-go-Lightning” point.
Tampa Bay knows the pain of the salary cap and its many machinations as well as any team in the NHL. Go back to 2004 when the Lightning won their first Stanley Cup. The Lightning were 21st in the league in total payroll at $33.5 million and beat four teams in the postseason (the Islanders, Canadiens, Flyers and Flames) that averaged $46.7 million in payroll.
That Lightning team was supposed to come back nearly intact, but NHL owners were insistent on implementing a salary cap and so the 2005 season was wiped out due to a work stoppage. When the NHL finally did return, a bunch of Lightning players were now considered free agents and a hard salary cap had been put in place. Tampa Bay lost goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin and was never the same team.
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In essence, the Lightning did not get to defend their Stanley Cup because the league wiped out one season in pursuit of a salary cap and then changed the playing field before the next.
Fast forward another decade. The Chicago Blackhawks lose star Patrick Kane to a broken collarbone on Feb. 24, 2015 that supposedly will force him to be out until late May. Over the next six days, the Blackhawks make three trades and bust the salary cap by the exact amount that they’re saving by putting Kane on long-term injured reserve.
Kane, as it turns out, returns for the first game of the playoffs and goes on to lead Chicago with 23 points in 23 games on the way to an NHL championship. And the team Chicago beats for the Stanley Cup? Of course, it’s the Lightning.
And Chicago, by the way, was coached by Joel Quenneville, who is now Florida’s coach. And that might explain why Quenneville said he had no complaint about Kucherov’s comeback coinciding with the start of the NHL playoffs.
So, yeah, the Lightning took advantage of long-term injured reserve this season. It allowed them to hold on to players they might otherwise had lost if Kucherov had not been in rehab during the regular season.
They didn’t make up a phantom injury for Kucherov, and they didn’t keep him off the ice for any longer than past precedent. That’s not cheating. That’s playing within the NHL’s own salary cap rules.
No one knows that better than the Lightning.
John Romano can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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