Disclaimer: These are merely allegations supported by growing evidence. Nothing has been confirmed by the Tampa Bay Lightning or the NHL.
Back in December, the Tampa Bay Lightning announced that star forward Nikita Kucherov would miss the entire regular season after undergoing hip surgery. But, he was expected to be back in time for the playoffs. I was immediately suspicious, and with good reason to be. This would allow the Lightning to place Kucherov on the LTIR (for an explanation of how that works, click here) and spend his $9.5 million to sign other players. Then, come playoffs, they could activate him without penalty since the salary cap doesn’t matter in the playoffs. With how tight the Lightning were against the cap with a number of players to re-sign, this seemed awfully convenient.
Now, before anyone says anything, I’m not saying it’s convenient he suddenly got injured. I’m certainly not questioning that; he was injured and he did have this surgery. If anyone suggests otherwise they’re crazy. I am, however, questioning the recovery time. The surgery Kucherov had normally takes 4-6 months to recover from. Typically, NHL players are closer to the four months as they’re young and have access to the best possible medical care. So, to immediately say he would without a doubt be out for at least five months is highly suspicious and more than likely not true. Kucherov is by all appearances nearly ready to play now, yet he’s conveniently still on the LTIR. Therefore, the Lightning are illegally circumventing the salary cap using the LTIR, and the NHL has to do something about it.
Not All Cap Circumvention is Illegal
Before I dig more into this, I do want to clarify something, because I see a lot of people talk about it. The Lightning have been circumventing the salary cap all season long. The St. Louis Blues have been too, as have several other teams. However, not all cap circumvention is illegal. The LTIR has always been a way for teams to circumvent the salary cap. Performance bonuses are another way as well. Retained salary in trades is yet another way. But, those are in the NHL’s CBA (collective bargaining agreement), and it’s therefore legal for teams to use them. That’s not what people are mad about. They’re mad because the Lightning are currently illegally using the LTIR with Kucherov.
According to the LTIR rules, a player must be removed immediately after they’re ready to play. Kucherov has been skating for a month now, including with the team at times in a non-contact jersey. Then, he appeared at practice today in a contact jersey. That means he’s pretty much ready to play, yet he’s still on the LTIR. The team’s doctors are not clearing him to play despite him pretty clearly being ready. That’s where this becomes illegal cap circumvention, and that’s why people are mad.
Why Would the Lightning Willingly Go Without Kucherov?
One argument I see a lot of people use to defend the Lightning’s actions is this: why would they willingly go without their best forward for an entire regular season if they didn’t have to? It’s true that seems weird at first. But, remember, the Lightning were an unbelievably deep team last year. Due to cap constraints, they weren’t going to be able to be as deep this year. But, being able to move Kucherov to the LTIR (and then acquire more players to put there, which is a whole other issue in my opinion that I won’t get into right now) allowed them to stay that way. On top of that, they’re in a fairly weak division.
In short, it’s a lot easier for them to make up for the loss of someone of Kucherov’s caliber than it is for most other teams. It’s not ideal, but as long as they had him back in time for the playoffs, they knew they’d have a chance to repeat.
How Do I Know He’s Ready to Play?
Now, I know what most people are going to say next. How can I possibly know for sure that Kucherov is ready to play? After all, the team doctors are saying he isn’t, and they’re doctors; I’m just an idiot with a keyboard. You’re right there. I can’t possibly know for a fact that he’s ready to go. However, let’s really look at the facts for a second.
Kucherov first appeared on the ice back in mid-March. My suspicions grew then. I knew he wasn’t fully ready at the time, but there is no way that he would not be ready for another two months after he started skating. It just doesn’t make sense. But, I wasn’t getting too worked up because like I said, he wasn’t ready at the time. There was nothing illegal going on there. But, I was suspicious.
The next fact I want to bring up is this: Steven Stamkos was just placed on the LTIR last night. He carries an $8.5 million cap hit. That’s $1 million less that Kucherov, and that can easily be cleared by sending a player to the taxi squad. But anyway, magically, after barely skating with his teammates and only being in a red non-contact jersey when he did, Kucherov appeared at practice this morning with a full-contract jersey. Hmmmm. Now that’s an AWFULLY big coincidence that he’s nearly ready to play the day after the Lightning will be able to make space for him under the salary cap! It’s almost like he’s probably been this way for a little bit now, but they were hiding it because they couldn’t afford to take him off the LTIR. That seems totally legal to me!
In all seriousness, the Lightning really could try to hide this better. To bring Kucherov back in full the day after they nearly have enough space for him makes what they’re doing laughably obvious.
But, Cooper Said He Wouldn’t Be Ready!
The next thing I know Lightning fans will try to throw in my face is head coach Jon Cooper’s comments after practice today. He said that the only reason Kucherov practiced in a gray jersey is that no player likes wearing the red one, but the players understood not to hit him. Yeah, sure. I have NEVER seen a player wear a contact jersey before they’re ready to. It’s true that no one likes wearing the red one. But, they always do, because it’s a visual cue not to touch them. Otherwise, players would have to look at their face to know not to hit them, and there usually isn’t time for that. Cooper saying this is just damage control because they realized they messed up.
Cooper also shot down the theory that Kucherov was ready and would be coming right off the LTIR. To be honest, I believe that. I don’t think Kucherov will be coming right off even though he could. As obvious as his appearance at practice today makes it, that would be even worse. The Lightning know they can’t do that, or they’ll be hearing from the league. So, they won’t.
However, that doesn’t mean he won’t be back before the playoffs. Cooper even admitted that Kucherov was ahead of schedule in his recovery. I anticipate that he’ll return around the end of the month, or at the very beginning of May.
The NHL Needs to Do Something About This Blatant Cheating
There is no denying what the Lightning are doing anymore. Everything about this has been too convenient from the start. But, there was always some argument people could come up with to defend it. Now, I really want to see people try. I truly do. If you think I’m wrong, then please explain to me how he’s magically healed the day after they have space for him, and not a day sooner. They said he’d be out for another month, and suddenly, after being on track for that target date, he’s wau ahead of schedule. It doesn’t take players a month to get ready to play after skating in a contact jersey. Kucherov will be back playing, and soon.
The NHL absolutely has to step in and do something about this. There are already ways for teams to legally cheat the salary cap. But now, you have a team that got so comfortable they thought they could get away with illegally cheating it. If the league sits back and does nothing, it’ll make this even more of a joke. Unfortunately, I feel like that’s what’s going to happen here, as the Lightning are the NHL’s darlings. But, that doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do. I hope I’m wrong, and the league actually takes action, because if they don’t, nothing will change. Teams will just continue to get more and more comfortable finding ways to cheat the cap, knowing that even if they cross the line into illegally doing so, there will be no consequences. At that point, why even have a hard salary cap?
-Lydia Murray (@lydia_murray12)
Featured image courtesy of Getty Images.
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