So, let’s address the cap maneuvering in the room, shall we?
The Islanders are about to take on a Lightning team that has a 20-man lineup nearly $8 million over the cap — at $89,329,116 — in the Stanley Cup semifinals. How does that happen?
Cap loopholes? Yes. Cap exploitation? Yes. Is it legal? Also, yes.
It’s a situation that has already drawn the ire of the Lightning’s opponents through the first two rounds of the playoffs. During the Hurricanes’ breakout day after the Lightning eliminated them in five games in the second round, veteran defenseman Dougie Hamilton couldn’t help but acknowledge the outside factors that led to his team’s early departure from the postseason.
“We lost to a team that’s $18 million over the cap or whatever they are,” he told reporters.
The LTIR is designed to ensure that teams aren’t penalized for losing top players to major injuries, and it played into Tampa Bay’s favor when Kucherov had to miss the entire 2020-21 regular season after he had hip surgery in December.
The Lightning were able to have the relief of his $9.5 million cap hit.
With the salary cap not enforced during the postseason, Kucherov was able to jump back into the lineup and is now leading the league with 18 points in 11 games (5 goals, 13 assists).
Essentially, the Lightning have been able to dress a lineup in the playoffs that would have been illegal to use in the regular season.
Asked about how the Lightning worked the cap regulations, neither Islanders head coach Barry Trotz nor general manager Lou Lamoriello took the bait.
“I’m not a capologist, I’m a coach,” Trotz said Friday ahead of Game 1 of the semifinals series, which is set for 3 p.m. Sunday in Tampa, Fla. “But I can tell you that Kucherov is a tremendous player. His skill-set is off the charts. He’s got a lot of deception, his release — there’s so many dangerous aspects and he’s one of the superstars in the league.”
Added Lamoriello: “I echo what Barry said: He’s a tremendous hockey player. I don’t think you need to say anymore. Certainly his past and his success speaks for itself.”
NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly told The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun last month that the league did investigate the Kucherov situation, as well as a few other team’s LTIR uses. Considering Kucherov followed a similar recovery timeline to many other players who underwent a similar procedure, it was ruled that the Lightning were operating within the CBA rules.
“I know [the NHL] investigated the Nikita Kucherov one, and we have to be able to justify the surgery, the rehab time, the return to play clearance to make sure that everything was done according to the rules and according to the circumstances, and those were the cards we were dealt. And that’s how we handled it,” Lightning GM Julien BriseBois told reporters Saturday.
The only way the Lightning could’ve gotten in trouble is if they were hiding healthy players on LTIR, a scenario for which there is no evidence. However, it was peculiar how BriseBois said the organization’s “realistic hope” was that Kucherov would be ready for the 2020-21 playoffs the day the 27-year-old winger’s surgery was announced in December.
It’s worth mentioning that the Islanders are also technically over the cap, with captain Anders Lee and Johnny Boychuk on LTIR. With Lee ruled out in March to have ACL surgery, he spent 56 days on LTIR, which saved the Islanders approximately $3,379,310 against the cap. Boychuk was on for the entire season, which surmounted to $2,896,551. But both players will not return this postseason.
Teams routinely use LTIR, but the waters become murky when players are brought back just in time for the playoffs. The question is, could Kucherov have returned at the end of the regular season? That’s something we’ll never know.
“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.”