As could have reasonably been expected, the Tampa Bay Lightning have faced some criticism of their handling of the salary cap this season, especially as they race toward what could very likely be back-to-back Stanley Cup Championships. The Lightning employed the Long-Term Injured Reserve to keep forward Nikita Kucherov off the pay roll for the entire 2020-21 regular season, allowing them to re-sign other players and add at the trade deadline by using the entirety of his $9.5MM cap hit as added space. Then, when the postseason began and the salary cap was no longer a factor, the 2018-19 Hart Trophy winner was ready to return, looking fresh and looking no worse for wear. At best, the timing of it all was extremely lucky. At worst, it was salary cap circumvention.
Defending his team against these allegations, Tampa GM Julien BriseBois tells Sportsnet’s Josh Beneteau that the NHL did in fact investigate the club’s LTIR usage and found that they had not broken any rules. The league had issued a warning earlier this season, with an unusually high number of teams using the LTIR, that they would be monitoring those transactions and would investigate. This was the case with Kucherov, but nothing about the Bolts’ actual transactions raised any alarms. After all, the LTIR, for all intents and purposes, is a legal form of circumvention. If other clubs are upset with how it is being used, it is an area that will need to be addressed in the next CBA negotiation in 2026.
However, the vast majority of complaints were not how the LTIR itself is structured or was used by Tampa, but rather the suspicious timing of Kucherov’s rehab lasting through the entire regular season but not into any of the postseason. BriseBois noted that this too had to be proven to the league. “We had to be able to justify the surgery, the rehab time, (and) the return to play clearance,” he told Beneteau. “Sometimes the stars align for you,” he added, qualifying what others believed to be a designed manipulation of the LTIR system. If the NHL was convinced that the timing was just right, then other teams and fans alike should be as well. BriseBois is right though – the team certainly got lucky and that luck might just lead them to another title.