Nikita Kucherov hits the ground running, but did the Tampa Bay Lightning bend the rules too far?

Nikita Kucherov #86 of the Tampa Bay Lightning. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Nikita Kucherov #86 of the Tampa Bay Lightning. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images) /

Did the Tampa Bay Lightning and Nikita Kucherov have the rest of the NHL tricked all along?

It didn’t take Tampa Bay Lightning winger Nikita Kucherov long to make a deposit in his 2021 postseason goal account.  With his pair of power play markers in the second period (and a third-period assist for good measure), the 2018-19 Hart Trophy winner helped guide the Bolts past their in-state rivals the Florida Panthers in a wild Game 1 Stanley Cup Playoffs game on Sunday night.

If I told you that Kucherov potted two in the Lightning’s first game of the postseason in the immediate aftermath of last season’s Stanley Cup win, you wouldn’t have blinked.  What would have caught you off-guard is that Kucherov’s breakout performance did come as a surprise to those of us who watched the 2020-21 regular season.

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That, of course, is because Kucherov played in exactly zero games in the regular season, sidelined as he recovered from offseason hip surgery.  Kucherov’s (non-existent) place in the Lightning’s regular season lineup raised the ire of some fans, who insisted that the team held Kucherov out to circumvent the salary cap.

Without wishing to bog ourselves down in an esoteric discussion of the cap, the grievance has to do with the way the Lightning leveraged Long Term Injured Reserve (LTIR) to spend well beyond the official salary cap.

By leaving Kucherov on LTIR throughout the regular season, the Lightning freed themselves up to create a cap-compliant team but spend an extra $9.5 million (Kucherov’s cap hit).  Now with roster limits and the salary cap lifted for the postseason, Kucherov is back in a lineup that costs just shy of $100 million in a league with a purported salary cap at just north of $80 million.

Given the timing of Kucherov’s return and that his 2020-21 debut suggested no rust at all, it is difficult to suggest that the Lightning weren’t at least in part getting creative in their cap management (and an abundance of caution) to exploit the LTIR problem.

Nikita Kucherov (86)
Nikita Kucherov #86 of the Tampa Bay Lightning. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images) /

Nikita Kucherov hit the ground running for the Tampa Bay Lightning in Stanley Cup Playoffs

However, irksome as this clever accounting may be to fans of other NHL contenders, anger at the Lightning is misplaced.  The issue here is the salary cap itself, rather than Tampa’s circumvention of it.

If there is a cap, taking advantage is part of the game.  This is one of the biggest problems with a cap: even with it in place, richer teams (who can spend to and past the official cap to say nothing of off-ice expenditures) continue to wield an advantage over poorer teams.  Instead of facilitating economic equality, a salary cap means that rich teams must leverage their financial might through loopholes and that players see their salaries restricted due to an artificial ceiling on their wages.

Tampa is not the first team to employ this kind of financial chicanery to circumvent the league’s salary cap.  The team also assumed a significant risk in putting a former MVP on the shelf for an entire regular season.  Before you wag your finger at the Lightning for sidestepping the salary cap, ask yourself what purpose that cap continues to serve if such maneuvering is not only possible but precedented.

Before closing, I would be remiss if I didn’t dwell a bit longer on Kucherov’s actual performance.  Rather than easing his star winger back into the lineup, Lightning Head Coach Jon Cooper slotted Kucherov in on the top line alongside Brayden Point and Ondrej Palat.  His 19:21 of ice time was roughly two minutes down from his postseason average from the fall but still a thirty-second increase over his regular season 2019-20 ATOI.

At five-on-five, Kucherov’s numbers were unexceptional; according to Natural Stat Trick, he posted a comfortable 53.13 CF% and underwhelming 47.54 xG%.  He was active in all three zones and managed to nab himself a breakaway (on which he fumbled the puck while attempting a forehand-backhand move on Sergei Bobrovsky).

To my eye, Kucherov was better than the above xG number would suggest, and, of course, any single game possession number figure should be taken with a grain of salt.

Where Kucherov proved unambiguously brilliant was on the power play.  He tallied all three of his points on the man advantage, wasting no time in getting re-situated in his office along the right half-wall.  For his first marker, Kucherov demonstrated the devastating ease with which he operates by knocking the broken stick of Panthers’ defenseman Gustav Forsling out of his way before one-timing a rocket past Bobrovsky.

He scored a nearly identical goal later in the period and added a scintillating assist to tie the game in the third period, faking a slap shot attempt at a third one-timed goal and instead sliding the puck to Point who was left with a wide open net to shoot into.

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In Game 1, the Tampa Bay Lightning power play operated at its mesmerizing best—rifling the puck around the Panther zone at dizzying speed.  If Florida cannot find some way to curb the Bolts’ extra-man efficiency, they have little hope of winning a Playoff series.  It was hardly a one-man show, but having not played a single regular season game in 2020-21, Nikita Kucherov shattered any illusion that he would arrive in the postseason with rust to knock off.  For the rest of the NHL, that is a scary thought.