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How did Lightning end up having to play two men short?

The team’s salary-cap situation makes replacing injured players difficult. Its lack of roster maneuverability makes it even tougher.
Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman celebrates his goal during the first period of Tuesday's win over the Kings in Los Angeles. With the Lightning down to just four defensemen for the game, Hedman played a team high 32:18.
Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman celebrates his goal during the first period of Tuesday's win over the Kings in Los Angeles. With the Lightning down to just four defensemen for the game, Hedman played a team high 32:18. [ MARK J. TERRILL | AP ]
Published Jan. 19|Updated Jan. 20

TAMPA — Before the Lightning flew to the West Coast and injuries to their defense corps quickly built up, coach Jon Cooper didn’t know quite know he’d fill out his lineup for Tuesday’s game against the Kings in Los Angeles.

Sometimes these things work themselves out, but having injuries to the top three right-side defensemen made filling the holes difficult. And when a team is hampered by the salary cap, like the Lightning are, things are more problematic.

Add a lack of roster flexibility and the Lightning had to play the Kings with just 16 skaters, two short of a full lineup. The Lightning dressed just four defensemen in the 6-4 win, meaning Victor Hedman, Ryan McDonagh, Mikhail Sergachev and Cal Foote played season-high minutes. Hedman played more than half the game, his 32:18 including more than three minutes on each side of the Lightning’s special-teams units.

“You get in a rhythm, for sure,” McDonagh said. “There’s no other way to put it. You’re going right back out there whether you had a good shift or a bad shift. So you’ve just got to forget about it and get ready for your next shift.”

Pushed up against the $81.5 million cap limit, the Lightning have no cap space. Like last season, to stay compliant, they have utilized long-term injured reserve, which allows day-to-day salaries of players out for an extended period to not count against the cap.

This season, wing Nikita Kucherov spent 79 days on long-term injured reserve and defenseman Zach Bogosian 30. Retired defenseman Brent Seabrook — whose contract was acquired in the offseason for Tyler Johnson — will be on it for the entire season. Players placed on regular injured reserve, such as forward Brayden Point (29 days) and defenseman Erik Cernak (16 days), count against the cap.

Last season, as general manager Julien BriseBois said last week, the Lightning had some roster maneuverability because players such as defensemen Cal Foote and Luke Schenn could be sent to the minors.

This season’s roster is void of players who wouldn’t have to clear waivers to be sent to the minors. So every roster move requires the money going out to match the money coming in, which BriseBois said will make it difficult to add players from the outside unless another team takes on salary or the Lightning are willing to part with a player on their current roster.

Placing any of the currently injured players — forward Ondrej Palat, Cernak, Bogosian, defenseman Jan Rutta — on long-term injured reserve would keep them out for 10 games and 24 days, but none of their injuries is serious enough to warrant that at this time.

And while defenseman Andrej Sustr is on the taxi squad and skated as a fifth defenseman during Tuesday’s morning skate, the taxi squad is for COVID-19- related callups only.

However, by playing shorthanded Tuesday, the Lightning activated the emergency exemption clause in the collective bargaining agreement that allows a team to add a player for the next game, which likely would be Sustr.

Contact Eduardo A. Encina at eencina@tampabay.com. Follow @EddieintheYard.

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