Did the Tampa Bay Lightning Cheat the NHL Salary Cap?

  • The Lightning saved $9.5M in cap space by putting Nikita Kucherov on Long-Term Injured Reserve
  • Tampa Bay finished the regular season third in the Central Division and their Russian sniper was magically ready to return at the start of the playoffs
  • NHL rules clearly state that teams can’t keep a healthy player on LTIR for cap reasons

“We lost to a team that’s $18 million over the cap,” said defenseman Dougie Hamilton after the Tampa Bay Lightning eliminated his Carolina Hurricanes in five games in the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Many others around the NHL also share Hamilton’s view that the defending champs exploited the league’s salary-cap rules. With the Bolts now battling the Islanders in the third round of the postseason, we’ll explain the issue at hand and weigh in whether the cap was cheated by general manager Julien BriseBois.

But before we do, be sure to check out our NHL betting tips page for advice on how to wager on hockey.

Getting cute with the cap

With the salary cap remaining flat at $81.5 million from last season to this season due to the financial impact of the pandemic, many league observers assumed Tampa Bay would have to break up their Cup-winning team to remain cap-compliant. Instead, the Lightning put Nikita Kucherov on Long-Term Injured Reserve (LTIR) following his December hip surgery.

This essentially kept the 2018-19 Hart Trophy winner off Tampa’s pay roll for the entire 2020-21 regular season, allowing them to re-sign other players and add at the trade deadline by using the entirety of his $9.5MM cap hit as added space.

Kucherov returns for playoffs

Where it gets suspicious is that Kucherov was of course ready to return for Game 1 of the postseason against the Florida Panthers, when his salary no longer counted against the cap. And what makes it worse is that the Russian sniper is currently leading scorer in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

“I didn’t do it on purpose, obviously,” Kucherov said “I had to do the surgery. I had to go through the whole five months of rehabilitation, and when the time came (when) I was ready to play, it was the playoffs.”

NHL investigation uncovers no foul play

In defending his team against allegations, Tampa GM Julien BriseBois said the NHL investigated the club’s LTIR usage and found they had not broken any rules. With regards to the suspicious timing of Kucherov’s return, he added: “We had to be able to justify the surgery, the rehab time, (and) the return to play clearance. Sometimes the stars align for you.”

In short, Kucherov’s timeline on LTIR was approved by the NHL and its inspections into his injury status found satisfactory evidence that the Lightning weren’t keeping a healthy player out of their lineup, which would have indeed been against the rules.

So, instead of criticism, perhaps BriseBois should be getting credit for building a roster that could withstand the loss of one of the game’s best players for 56 games and still qualify for the postseason. Besides, Tampa Bay was far from the only offender when it came to stretching the rules. Eight other teams went at least $4 million over the cap using similar shenanigans.

While the Lightning’s cap gymnastics may leave a bad taste in the mouths of players and fans whose clubs have been eliminated by Tampa Bay, everything was perfectly legal – even if it was against the spirit of rules.

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Steve Starr

Steve is one of the many Americans who spends Sunday watching football on the couch and gorging on heart-clogging eats. He describes himself as a good father, great dog owner, and mediocre gambler and husband.

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