When the league announced that there was an agreement to start the season we expected a flurry of news over the next few days, even with the normal holiday lull looming. The holiday roster freeze that prevents teams from making anything other than emergency transactions is reportedly not in effect this year so trades, waivers, and the like can take place. With the Tampa Bay Lightning needing to shed some salary, that was welcome news. All of that was quickly upended when Elliotte Friedman dropped some rather unwelcome news:
TB's cap issues may be solved by LTIR. There is word Nikita Kucherov is battling an injury that may keep him out awhile. No comment from team/agent, so details are sketchy -- but clarity expected this week. If unable to play (unfortunately), it will clear room for the Lightning.— Elliotte Friedman (@FriedgeHNIC) December 21, 2020
Yeah, that’s not what we want to see heading into a shortened season. Pierre LeBrun Quote Tweeted Friedman’s post adding the detail that Kucherov received a shot in his hip last week and that everyone is waiting to see what the reaction is for the Lightning’s vaunted forward. No one is waiting on how to interpret the potential ramifications, of course.
If you’re brave enough to read the replies to Friedman’s post (don’t read the replies, never read the replies) non-fans of the Tampa Bay Lightning are immediately crying foul and accusing the organization of circumventing the salary cap. Let’s be 100% clear here, the benefits of finagling the cap by placing Nikita Kucherov on LTIR are greatly, tremendously, outstandingly, dare I say “bigly” outweighed by what he can do for them on the ice.
The pessimistic thought from folks out there is that the Lightning throw Kucherov on LTIR for the entire regular season which allows them the cap room necessary to sign Restricted Free Agents Anthony Cirelli and Erik Cernak without trading Tyer Johnson or Alex Killorn. They skip their way through the regular season and Kucherov is healthy enough to join them in the playoffs when the salary cap no longer matters. It’s a scenario that played out in the 2014-15 season when Patick Kane broke his clavicle in February and was out until the playoffs. In the meantime Chicago added three extra players that they wouldn’t have been able to fit under the salary cap during the regular season and went on to win the Stanley Cup.
Unfortunately, it’s not quite the same situation. The Lightning would have to win what could be a tough division without the best offensive player on the team. He’s not only the best offensive player on the team, but one of the top three in the league. Trust me, there are easier ways to get under the salary cap than that. Over the past three seasons there are two players in the NHL that have totaled 300 points or more: Connor McDavid (321) and Nikita Kucherov (313). That’s it. That’s the stat.
Benching him for the regular season, even if it is only 56 games, makes an assumption that the Lightning are going to be a shoe-in for the playoffs. Are they one of the top four teams in the newly developed Central Division? Yes, they should be...on paper. They still have to play, and win, the games. That isn’t going to be as easy as some folks think.
Games against Columbus, Nashville, and Dallas are going to be slugfest. We saw that in the playoffs. Carolina is going to be a handful to deal with and we never know what kind of Florida team is going to show up. Yes, Chicago is rebuilding, but writing them off as an easy team to beat will be a mistake. Detroit, well Detroit is going to be bad.
In a short season, teams aren’t going to have time to sort things out. Remember last season when the Lightning struggled for consistency during the first 20 games of the season or so? Well, if they repeat that slow start then that’s basically half of the season and they don’t have another 60 games to figure things out. They have to get off to a quick start and maintain that play all season long.
Without Kucherov their offense looks a lot different. Supposedly they are getting Steven Stamkos back at the start of the season, which wold help. While the optimistic part of my brain is excited for that, the other part, the part that’s been beat down by 30+ years of watching sports, is waiting to actually see him on the ice before believing it. No Stamkos and no Kucherov would mean a lot of shuffling of the lines.
Even in this scenario where Kucherov goes on LTIR and everyone, including Tyler Johnson and Alex Killorn return, the offense is no longer the best in the league. Yes, they still have Brayden Point out there doing Brayden Point things, and he could probably turn Alexander Volkov into a 20-goal forward, but the depth that the Lightning rely on would be severely tested. Not to mention that the power play would be a shell of itself.
Throw in the one or two random injuries that are going to happen due to a shortened training camp and all of a sudden we’re trying to justify Patrick Maroon as a valid second line option and we’re seeing way too much of Mitchell Stephens and Taylor Raddysh than we want to this season.
There is also the fact that, if this was some type of shambolic cap circumvention, the Lightning would need Nikita Kucherov to sign off on the shenanigans. Which, if past history is indication, most likely would not be the case. Kucherov wants to play hockey and might be the most competitive person on the team. Agreeing to not play an entire season, even if it is just 56 games long, doesn’t seem to be in his makeup.
So, while it’s always fun to dive into conspiracy land, the simple truth is that Kucherov may be more banged up than we realized. He did draw a lot of physical play, especially against the New York Islanders, during the playoff bubble and it’s not unreasonable that he is still suffering from it. It is also reasonable to think that he may miss a few games at the beginning of the season. What is unreasonable is to assume that the Tampa Bay Lightning are in anyway running a con on the salary cap.