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Did Kucherov’s Return Prove the Lightning Cheated the NHL Salary Cap?

Is the fact that Nikita Kucherov is back just in time for the playoffs proof that the Tampa Bay Lighting broke the NHL salary cap rules?

While the Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning game to start their series might have been the best of the lot thus far in the 2020-21 NHL playoffs, and underlying off-ice story is overshadowing some tremendous on-ice action. The fact that the Lightning brought back “an injured” Nikita Kucherov, just in time to join the team for Game 1 of the playoffs is not sitting well with a lot of people.

On the surface, it looks like exactly what the NHL warned teams not to do. A player with a long-term injury was not to sit out the entire regular season if he was able to return prior to the playoffs, only to jump in when the playoffs began and when their salary wouldn’t count against that respective team’s cap. Specifically, Kucherov missed the entire regular season recovering from hip surgery, then slotted in for Game 1, after the Lightning made some key trade deadline moves they couldn’t have made if Kucherov’s contracts were on the books.

Related: Chris Driedger Part of Florida Panthers Roster Changes for Game 2

That Kucherov scored two goals in the opening game is only adding fuel to the fire of this debate.

The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun took a closer look at all the talk and wrote an in-depth piece examining this debate from a number of angles. He talked to the Panthers, he talked to the NHL, he talked to a number of other league executives and he talked to Kucherov’s agent.

The team who will be hit first and hardest by Kucherov’s return is the Panthers. They don’t believe anything fishy is going on. “No, I don’t feel there’s a circumvention,” Panthers GM Bill Zito told The Athletic. “It’s all within the rules. From our standpoint, everything is above board. He’s a good player, obviously. Julien’s a smart guy. There’s no issues with the integrity of this whatsoever.’’

Nikita Kucherov Tampa Bay Lightning
Nikita Kucherov Tampa Bay Lightning

The NHL said they have looked into all cases where there might be a question. “Yes, we did, as well as a number of additional cases involving the use of LTI,” NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said. “We determined that the provision was invoked and applied in a consistent manner with the requirements of the CBA.’’

This, of course, won’t change the minds of a number of other league executives (and fans) who believe the timing of all this is just too perfect. Are we really to believe that Kucherov just magically recovered in time to only be available when the postseason began?

If we’re to believe Kucherov’s agent, it’s a different kind of magic that’s at play here.

Kucherov Too Competitive Not to Play

As for Kucherov’s agent, Dan Milstein, he noted: “Initially, doctors told him the earliest (return) date was going to be around the second round of the playoffs.” He added that he was on every call and in every meeting and a return already wasn’t likely. His agent notes there’s no way Kucherov would have been willing to sit out games if he was able to play.

What he’s saying is that Kucherov sped up his timeline for return by doing proper rehab and being a freak of nature. Had he sped it up enough to join the team in their final few regular season games, he would have. It didn’t work out that way and many within the Lightning organization are surprised Kucherov actually came back in time for Game 1.

“This is truly a miracle for him to come back this soon,’’ Milstein said. “To be honest with you, I think he started playing a little bit earlier than he should have. But that’s Kuch, you can’t hold this guy back.’’

Next: Canadiens vs. Maple Leafs: Which Playoff Team Has the Most to Lose?

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