How the Lightning Manipulated the salary cap…legally: It seems like drama can’t stay away from the NHL; whether it’s players getting suspended, controversial hits and punishments and, of course, the salary cap. The cap is in place to ensure that no singular team is loaded with Alex Ovechkins or Sidney Crosby; however, there are loopholes that allow some teams to go over the cap legally, and Tampa Bay found it.
Long Term Injured Reserve, LTIR, allows NHL teams to keep players who are majorly injured or sick signed with the team without affecting the teams salary cap. They are still allowed to sign other players and can max out the cap while the player is away.
The NHL salary cap for the 2020-21 season was set at $81.5 million as a result of COVID-19; the same as last season. Regardless of this, the Lightning have been competing in the Stanley Cup Playoffs almost $10 million over the salary cap.
Tampa Bay forward Nikita Kucherov underwent hip surgery during the offseason and he was unable to play once the regular season started. This allowed the Lightning to keep players that they would have been forced to trade after their 2020 Stanley Cup win.
Instead, the Lightning got to keep their best players on the ice and have a star waiting for them on the side. Kucherov was ready to go when the post-season started and luckily for Tampa Bay, the salary cap was no longer a factor.
Therefore, Kucherov’s $9.55 million cap hit did not affect the Lightning’s playoff roster. They technically get a “bonus player”, one who happens to be incredible. Kucherov demonstrated early in the playoffs that he was back in playing shape and still elite when he generated four points in two games which resulted in Tampa wins. The Lightning’s “back pocket” asset was back in shape.
Is it fair?
Regardless of what angry fans of their opponents think about the stacked, over-the-cap roster, the league has ruled that it is legal. The NHL investigated Tampa’s LTIR usage and determined that no rules were broken.
What raised alarm for NHL fans wasn’t the Lightning’s use of the salary cap, but the timing of Kucherov’s recovery. Kucherov was unable to play during the regular season, but did not miss any of the postseason. Tampa Bay GM Julien BriseBois addressed these comments, stating that the team was required to account for all of the surgery and rehabilitation time. The return to play time was also approved by the league.
It should be considered as well that Kucherov was absent for 56 games and the Lightning were still able to make it to the playoffs. They earned their place on the big stage without Kucherov, therefore proving the team as a whole has what it takes.
What does this mean?
As the reigning Stanley Cup champions, the Lightning have a chance to win their second consecutive championship. The last team to pull off back to back year championships were the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2016 and 2017. Although the remaining three teams are all strong, it’s tough to compete with a team almost $10 million over the cap with a player like Kucherov back in play.
If the Lightning win, the league might consider changing the LTIR rule. If they don’t change the rule, they might at least insert a clause requiring athletes to play a certain amount of time in the regular season if they want to compete in the playoffs or making the playoffs still abide by the cap rule.
Whether you agree with the current LTIR rule or not, the Lightning have beat the salary cap and brought a loaded team into the playoffs, completely legally.