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The Kucherov Maneuver: Fair or Foul?

Fresh off the heels of the Tampa Bay Lightning repeating as Stanley Cup Champions, there have been more than a few cries of foul play from players and fans about how GM Julien Brisebois managed their cap this year.

Like many, I have the image of a topless Nikita Kucherov loaded at his presser seared into my memory. Of course, it is primarily how Kucherov was allowed to play in the playoffs after missing the entire regular season on Long Term Injured Reserve (LTIR), that has drawn the ire of hockey purists who think it was foul play.

Nikita Kucherov, in full celebration mode - Image credit: USA Today

Before I weighed in on this subject to decide a) Was it fair/legal? b) What are the ramifications likely to be moving forward? c) Should the league review the LTIR clause to prevent this in the future? I needed to understand what the rule is and what actually happened first. It was enlightening. Here is a brief synopsis:

  • Common misconception is that while a player is on LTIR that their salary doesn’t count against the cap. NOT TRUE. If a team is up against the cap and put a player on LTIR, they are allowed to spend the value of his remaining cap hit over and above the regular cap. Known as the LTIR pool.

  • To qualify for the LTIR, a player has to be expected to miss a minimum of 10 games AND 24 days on the NHL schedule.

  • When a player is removed from LTIR, on that day, the team must be at or below the cap or they are in violation.

  • The cap only applies to the regular season as players are not paid in the playoffs.

  • While on LTIR, a player receives full salary as all contracts are guaranteed in the NHL.

  • Insurance covers 80% of the salary of LTIR players. Team pays 20%

  • There doesn’t appear to be any regulation as to when a player must come off LTIR once he is placed on it.

So what happened? Just the facts...

After winning the Stanley Cup on September 28, 2020 against the Dallas Stars, Kucherov needed to have hip surgery. The procedure was done on December 29, 2020. The regular season started January 13, 2021 and the Tampa Bay Lightning started their playoff series against the Florida Panthers on May 16, 2021. The rehab process was expected to be about 5 months. Kucherov was activated for the playoffs after the regular season ended. Kucherov had 11 points in the 1st round against the Panthers.

Kucherov was not the only maneuver used by Julien Brisebois to manage the cap. He made effective use of the taxi squad waving Tyler Johnson 4 times and Luke Schenn as well to gain cap relief for some of their combined $4 million USD cap hit. Johnson still managed to play 55 of 56 games during the year. Brisebois knew that no one was going to take his $3.2 Million cap hit and the same with Schenn and his $800K contract.

The Kucherov Maneuver is the one everyone is focusing on for a number of reasons. Before we get into that, let’s ask the question:

Was this fair/legal?

According to the rules, no laws were broken. Like it or not, this was legal. Kucherov was on LTIR the entire season and was activated for the playoffs where the cap doesn’t apply.

Was it fair? Everything seems unfair when it is done to you and you can’t do anything about it. Let me ask you this question:

Let’s imagine in the 2012/13 season that Erik Karlsson tore his achilles tendon in training camp rather than February 2013. Let’s also imagine that Eugene Melnyk wasn’t Eugene Melnyk. You are Bryan Murray. You thought that by putting him on LTIR, letting the insurance company pick up 80% of the tab, replace his $7 million cap hit with other players, that you could still get to the playoffs without him and activate him when you got there. What would you do?

I know what I would do. I would do what Julien Brisebois did every day of the week. I wouldn’t apologize for it either.

Don’t hate the player. Hate the game.

What are the ramifications likely to be moving forward?

Now that this has worked successfully, it behooves NHL general managers to change the way they think. By that I don’t mean that they should use this cap tactic on a whim. It has to be a legitimate move.

No one has come forward with any proof of malfeasance. Kucherov had hip surgery. It’s a fact. It has a lengthy recovery period. The Lightning didn’t infect the Vancouver Canucks roster with Covid-19 thus extending the regular season and allow Kucherov additional time to recover.

Of course, with Kucherov getting 11 points in the first round and being in the running for the Conn Smythe trophy, it does make you wonder when he was actually healthy enough to play? If the playoffs had started on time, would Kucherov have been ready then?

Again, nothing in the rules says that a player has to come off LTIR once they qualify to be on it. It may be a suspect maneuver. However, suspect is not illegal.

Using my Karlsson example from earlier, is it possible that teams will employ this kind of thinking as being advantageous? Clearly Kucherov was the better for this. His game did not suffer. He was fresh come playoff time and gave a dominant performance. Might other GMs who know they can make the playoffs comfortably without a player who they know could benefit from a surgery and time it so that they miss the season or a large chunk of it to allow them to keep other players and be cap compliant? The template has been set.

Could this create a competitive imbalance in the league if GMs start to do what Brisebois did? The cap system was designed to create a competitive landscape where any market could win the Cup. You would have to say that no professional league has the parity of the NHL. You can only use the LTIR pool if you are at the cap. Follow this example:

The Ottawa Senators projected cap hit is just over $53 million for next season. That leaves them nearly $28.5 million in unused cap space. They need to spend just to get to the lower limit or floor. In order for them to qualify for LTIR pool, they need to get to the $81.5 million cap upper limit or ceiling. They can still use LTIR for a player and have the insurance company pick up 80% of the tab. Non cap teams can’t benefit from this pooling unless the player they lose and put on LTIR has a cap hit that, if replaced, would put them over the cap. The Senators and other non-cap teams can’t use this to their advantage.

The Toronto Maple Leafs are projected to have a cap hit right now of just over $72 million. This leaves them nearly $9.4 million to get to the cap. They are worried about losing Zach Hyman and Freddie Andersen to free agency. There isn’t enough money left to sign both players. Imagine if John Tavares hasn’t recovered from the concussion he sustained in the playoffs by training camp. Could the Leafs plan to have Tavares on LTIR for enough of the season to allow them to be cap compliant and retain those two players? You can pool a lot with an $11 million cap hit. Some teams spend to the cap every year as they have the means to do so. This maneuver suddenly becomes an option that everyone can avail themselves of as long as they have an injured player that has a significant cap hit and doesn’t mind agreeing to this.

Consider this.

The Tampa Bay Lightning won the Stanley Cup against Dallas on September 28, 2020. Kucherov had his surgery on December 29, 2020. There is a 3 month gap between end of the season and surgery being done. In the have/have not world that we live in, we would have to call Kucherov a HAVE. Hard to believe he could not have gotten his surgery done sooner than 3 months after the Cup was won. Again, it is suspect but not illegal.

If the HAVES of the league start using the Kucherov maneuver as a means of being cap compliant, it appears to create a competitive imbalance by allowing them to pool money over and above the cap as relief. They get a bigger cap for lack of a better way of saying it.

I would imagine lots of players could benefit from 6 months of “rehab” and practice and would not miss a beat come playoff time. We all saw how long it took Sidney Crosby to recover from his concussion.

Just Sayin’! Watch out!

Should the league review the LTIR clause to prevent this in the future?

The Tampa Bay Lighting didn’t just have the best team. They had the best GM as well. As much as I admire Julien Brisebois for what he did, it is clear to me that this clause could be problematic for the league if they leave it as is.

My biggest concerns are in how you qualify for the LTIR. I don’t have a problem with the minimum 10 games and 24 days of schedule as a qualifier. However, it doesn’t appear to have any regulation once a player is on LTIR. We all saw how dominant Kucherov was from game 1 of round 1. When could he have returned to action? IMO, there needs to be some validation by independent medical personnel from the league to ensure that healthy players aren’t sitting on LTIR when they could be playing. Financially there is no incentive as they are getting paid full salary. It just becomes a question of integrity on the part of the team and the player. If you or I, in our regular jobs, were on long term disability, we would have to provide medical proof periodically to show the insurance company that we couldn’t work. Not working when able and collecting an insurance paycheck is malingering. If caught, you could find yourself in a position of having to reimburse some or all of what you received as disability pay.

To me, malingering undermines the spirit of the clause which was designed to help a team deal with an unexpected injury to a key player when they were already at the cap. I don’t have any proof. No one does. No one appears to be looking. It behooves them to look.

The league has intervened before when they felt that the spirit of the salary cap rules were being unfairly manipulated. Think back to when Ilya Kovalchuk signed a 17 year deal with the New Jersey Devils for $102 million. This meant a salary cap hit of only $6 million. However, the amount of money he was scheduled to make in the first 6 years of the deal was at north of $10 million per. The NHL invalidated the contract. Of course, it had to be reworked into a 15 year contract which isn’t much better but it showed they are willing to intervene.

I don’t think that the whole clause needs to be reworked. There just needs to be some accountability independently to show that the teams and the players are doing everything they can to recover from the injury and get back to playing. If there is one thing you can cast some doubt on is whether or not the Lightning had any intention of Kucherov playing in the regular season this year. The delay in the surgery and his immediate dominance in the playoffs from game 1 suggests to me that there was some strategy involved in this process.

Again, it was suspect but not illegal.

Parity is a priceless asset that the NHL has. Other leagues wish they had it. If they don’t address this clause, that asset could be in jeopardy.

By Pat Maguire | Sens Nation Hockey



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