TAMPA — The Lightning’s move to place Nikita Kucherov on long-term injured reserve — which helped the team become compliant with the league’s $81.5 million salary cap — has unquestionably worked out well. The Lightning made the postseason without Kucherov, and their best player returned from December hip labrum surgery in time for the beginning of the playoffs.
Seeing how successful the process was — Kucherov leads the league in postseason points and the Lightning are back among the final four teams — has drawn renewed scrutiny on the Lightning and the way they have maneuvered the cap, but general manager Julian BriseBois said Saturday that there were several risks involved.
“That’s just how it played itself out, and sometimes the stars align for you,” BriseBois said in media availability a day before the the semifinals start against the Islanders. “Today I know that we made the playoffs, we qualified for the playoffs, we’ve been able to win two rounds so far, Nikita has been able to come back and perform at a high level.
“When all of the decisions were made to know that Nikita needed surgery and then we had to decide whether to place him on long-term exemption or not for the season, I didn’t know how things would unfold.”
The Lightning were able to save $9.5 million of cap space with Kucherov’s move, and combined with acquiring the contracts of injured players Marian Gaborik and Anders Nilsson, they were able to use long-term injured reserve to meet the cap restraints. As BriseBois emphasized Saturday, the league investigated the long-term injury requests, and the team had to justify the surgery, the rehab schedule and the timetable for return.
“Those were the cards that we were dealt and that’s how we handled it,” BriseBois said. “We had a player who was injured, who needed surgery with about a five-month expected rehabilitation time. It just so happened that this season, because of the extraordinary circumstances, this regular season was only lasting four months. So he was able to have surgery, miss the entire season, we got some cap relief during the season, and he was able to come back a little sooner than expected and it so happened that that coincided with Game 1 of the playoffs.”
The team’s initial timetable had Kucherov returning for the second round of the postseason, and Kucherov’s recovery was the quickest BriseBois has seen from that surgery, and he’s seen a lot. Brayden Point, Yanni Gourde, Ryan Callahan and Ben Thomas all had similar procedures that took longer.
Ultimately, the Lightning still had to make the postseason without their best player, but BriseBois said that was by far a better option than having to move one or two core pieces.
“Luckily for me and for our organization, I don’t think they could have unfolded any better,” BriseBois said. “But at the time, when I was looking at all the possible scenarios and all the possible outcomes, none of them were as good as this one, and there were a lot of ones that weren’t very good. That’s all I can say.”
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Boos, cheers welcomed
For the first time this postseason, Tampa Bay has home-ice advantage. But how much of an advantage is it, really?
“I think we’ve done well on the road (winning five of six away from home this postseason),” forward Alex Killorn said. “I don’t really know what to attribute that to, I think maybe there’s not as many distractions when you’re away from the rink — just kind of all hockey focused.”
The potential for distractions has ramped up somewhat with arenas getting closer to capacity. Last season, the Lightning went 65 days without playing in front of fans on their way to winning the Stanley Cup.
The Islanders’ Nassau Coliseum, which hosts Games 3 and 4, will permit at least 12,000 fans. The Lightning can host up to 14,800 (78 percent) during the semifinals, up from the 13,500 they allowed for Round 2.
“You can feel (the momentum swings) when you’re on the road or even at home here when we’re feeling good about our game and the crowd is behind us,” defenseman Ryan McDonagh said.
“You want to try to capitalize on that and ... at the end of the day, we’re playing in front of great crowds whether at home or on the road, I think our group is feeding off the energy a little bit, too, and the intensity picks up — you want to play in those kinds of games.”
Chemistry on the power play
It’s well known throughout the league how dangerous the Lightning’s power play can be. And it’s proven especially lethal this postseason.
Through 11 playoff games, the Lightning have scored at least one power-play goal in all but three contests (Games 2 and 5 at Florida, Game 2 at Carolina). Tampa Bay leads the league in power-play production at 41.7 percent (scoring on 15 of 36 opportunities). The second-place Islanders are operating at 28.1 percent (scoring on nine of 32 chances).
Kucherov sees the ice like no one else and can slow the plays down. Point speeds it up and finds holes in the gritty areas. Victor Hedman acts like a quarterback at the point and still makes those offensive efforts from the blue line. Steven Stamkos’ one-timer is a force to be reckoned with from the left faceoff circle. And Killorn has a heavy net-front presence around the goalie’s crease with an ability to make the low plays.
“You can’t cover (us) all,” Hedman said. “And I think our power play’s done a good job of adjusting on the fly, making reads, making plays. You can have as many set plays as you want, but sometimes you have to take what’s there.”
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