In praise of the Tampa Bay Lightning, Nikita Kucherov and salary-cap gymnastics

Joel Auerbach/Icon Sportswire

The Tampa Bay Lightning had Nikita Kucherov and his $9.5 million salary-cap hit on the shelf for the entire regular season, only to have him recover in time to score two goals in their first game of the 2021 NHL playoffs.

This is some next-level hockey villainy (at least to some outside observers).

To summarize:

  • They win the Stanley Cup last season.

  • With the salary cap flat and their contract numbers rising, it was assumed they'd have to break up parts of the roster to be cap-compliant.

  • Kucherov's offseason hip surgery provided them with the opportunity to put him on long-term injured reserve, so they could keep players they might have otherwise traded, while signing others with the usual Floridian tax rate discount, which always earns envious scorn from opposing fans.

  • The Lightning finished the season third in the Central Division.

  • Kucherov was ready to return for the start of the postseason against the Florida Panthers. He has four points through two games -- both of them Tampa wins -- so far.

If you think this is cheating, too bad. The Lightning earned the cheat. They built a roster that withstood the loss of captain Steven Stamkos for all but one game of the playoffs last season to win the Stanley Cup. They built a roster that could withstand the loss of Nikita Kucherov for 56 games and still qualify for the postseason.

This should be celebrated. In a league full of bungling mismanagement and salary-cap horror shows, the meticulously constructed and managed Lightning earned their cheat as much as they earned their championship.

"It's a salary-cap world. If I'm on Tampa, I'm stoked about it, so I can't really chirp it too much," Dallas Stars center Tyler Seguin told ESPN recently.

Seguin considered "pulling a Kucherov" himself after two offseason surgeries sidelined him for most of the 2021 season. But Dallas didn't have the luxury of cruising into the playoffs without a star player, so he returned for three late-season games as the Stars tried -- and failed -- to make the playoffs.

I asked him how he felt about the Kucherov maneuver. "You're definitely flirting with the line of what's right and wrong," he said.

But the Lightning were, by the letter of the collectively bargained salary-cap law, on the right side of the line.