The Tampa Lightning is enjoying another great season. The Lightning has a three-point lead on Carolina in the Central Division with a 24-7-2 record.
The Lightning has accomplished all this without their best player Nikita Kucherov who had off-season surgery hip surgery and is out for the regular season.
Kucherov is expected to be back and fully healthy for the playoffs.
It was a bit of a surprise in Mid-March when we saw Kucherov skating on the ice doing some individual work with the trainers.
Joe Smith of The Athletic reported that although Kucherov was back on the ice doing some light work, he is still a long way away from practicing consistently with the rest of the team.
The Lightning has significant salary cap issues. Their long-term extensions to Stamkos, Point, Vasilevskiy, and Kucherov have caught up with them, and there is very little wiggle room to add some depth at the trade deadline.
Kucherov was placed on the LTIR (long-term injured reserve list) before the start of the season.
The LTIR is a system that allows teams to take players who will miss at least 10 NHL games due to injury and put them on the LTIR. Kucherov was placed on the LTIR. The Lightning was then allowed to exceed the salary cap by the amount of Kucherov’s contract, minus any cap space they had the day they placed them on the LTIR.
When Kucherov returns, the team must clear any cap space they gained over and above the salary cap to get back under the cap. Kucherov will not be able to be activated until this is done. Kucherov cannot stay on the LTIR once he is medically cleared to play.
Now comes word that some around the league think that the Lightning may be abusing the LTIR with Kucherov to create additional cap space this season.
It doesn’t matter if Kucherov is medically cleared to play this season. The Lightning can’t afford to activate him off LTIR at all due to their salary cap situation. If Kucherov is skating now, will it take another six weeks for him to get back up to game speed?
And, if Kucherov is ready before the playoffs and is cleared by a medical expert, what then?
Pierre Lebrun asked the question, “Would the Lightning be allowed to keep a healthy Kucherov out of the lineup for cap reasons and then add him for the playoffs?”
The answer is the Lightning are obliged to make room for him, or they can’t use him. Lebrun adds, “Which, again, in theory, could affect his playoff availability. Call me naïve, but I don’t think the Cup champs are playing around with this. The league is watching.”
The Good news for Lightning fans is that Kucherov is skating again and is on schedule to be back for the playoffs. For the Central Division teams and the rest of the NHL, if Kucherov looks good and appears ready to play but doesn’t return right away, it’s cap circumvention.
Many teams and hockey writers are crying foul, thinking that Kucherov being on the ice for a practice indicates that he will be ready before the playoffs in May.
One thing we know is the NHL will monitor the situation. We also know that the Lightning organization and owner Jeffrey Vinik is a role model for the rest of the league.
This is a development worth watching as the season winds down.
Are the Lightning circumventing the cap with the Kucherov contract situation? No. The Lightning are playing within the salary cap rules and taking advantage of the LTIR rules the way they are written.
When the playoffs begin, the Lightning will have to cut almost ten million dollars in salary cap money to put Kucherov on the active roster.
Until then, it’s business as usual, and the Lightning will try to pile up as many points as possible to gain home-ice advantage for the playoffs.