Were the Tampa Bay Lightning Overplaying Nikita Kucherov's Injury to Evade the NHL's Salary Cap?

Were the Tampa Bay Lightning Overplaying Nikita Kucherov's Injury to Evade the NHL's Salary Cap?
(AP Photo/Chris O'Meara, File)

Conspiracy theories and sports go together like trolls and Twitter. Reactions ranging from mumbled mutters to outright accusations regarding biased officiating, players dogging it, and other nefarious schemes to either promote or persecute one team or individual have been the foodstuff of fan fodder since the first Olympiad, when supporters of Aeropos accused Aeschylus of sneaking a pebble in their main man’s sandal just before the big race. Usually, such chatter is easily dismissed; for example, if NASCAR was as prone to favoritism as has oft been the cry it is utterly logical to assume Dale Earnhardt Jr. would have won more Cup championships than he did during his racing career, the number of such titles being exactly zero. That said, sometimes you have to wonder.

In this vein of “Things that make you go hmm,” we present Tampa Bay Lightning right wing Nikita Kucherov. Kucherov is a genuine bonafide stud, with a Stanley Cup and an MVP award to his credit. There’s no questioning his skill.

The question on the mind of many hockey fans is, what exactly did Kucherov do to warrant hip surgery last December that took him off the ice for the entirety of the 2021 season? Which, in a side issue that is doubtless purely coincidental, helped the Lightning fit underneath the salary cap they were hard up against before Kucherov went on long-term injured reserve? Nah, that couldn’t possibly be it … oh, wait, you mean Kucherov has come back just in time for the postseason and hasn’t missed a beat? The devil you say! (As opposed to the New Jersey Devils.)

Now, one might be tempted to say, “Let’s calm down here.” Surely a team, even one as loaded as the Lightning, wouldn’t keep one of their main players off the ice with a conveniently timed, and length of time out of action, “injury” just to balance the books? Why, that could endanger Tampa Bay’s ability to make the playoffs!

Here’s the everlasting rub. As valuable as Kucherov is to his team, even without him the only way the Lightning were going to miss the playoffs this year would have been if the team plane would have made a very wrong turn flying into Tampa International Airport and found itself circling inside the Bermuda Triangle while low on fuel. There was no way — none — Tampa Bay was not going to be one of the top four teams in the Discover Central conference. Not with Andrew Vasilevskiy in-net. Not with Victor Hedman patrolling the blue line. Not when you’re among the top ten teams in the league in scoring.

Oh — in case you’re wondering, there is no salary cap in the playoffs.

And there you have it. While in reaction to the above a certain amount of sour grapes from Florida Panthers and Carolina Hurricanes fans can be expected, the fact remains it is well nigh impossible to not view the Nikita Kucherov situation as a deliberate circumvention of the league’s salary cap rule. It is equally impossible to believe that those teams finding themselves, as a result of this, on the short end of the hockey stick will not make eliminating this loophole a priority during the league meetings prior to the start of the 2021-2022 season – unless they’re in a Tampa Bay situation and have a plan to follow the Lightning’s lead by stashing a player or two on LTIR. This may not be the preferred plan, though, should the league return to its traditional 82-game schedule next season. So, we shall see.

In the meanwhile, the Lightning will be taking on the New York Islanders in the Stanley Cup semi-finals, while the other semi-finals will have the Montreal Canadiens taking on the winner of the Vegas Golden Knights-Colorado Avalanche series in which Vegas presently holds a three-game to two lead.

Final word? As Miss Piggy says …

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