NHL sleight of hand with salary cap doesn’t seem fair, but GMs prefer to look elsewhere
The salary cap doesn’t matter in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
It always has been. But this year it seems to matter more.
A whole bunch of really good players on very good teams are going to drop off the long-term injured reserve list around mid-May when the playoffs begin.
Like a miracle.
Switching to LTIR requires a player to miss at least 10 games and 24 days. In return, the team can use the player’s salary to replace him, either by trade or by call-ups. The condition: when the player returns, he must go under the hood. Unless of course he returns before the start of the playoffs.
Tampa was the best example, sidelining Nikita Kucherov (hip surgery) for the entire season, a season in which the Lightning was in a particular crunch that could have cost them some good young players until move. Steve Stamkos’ mid-season injury also gave the Lightning some wiggle room on the deadline.
The Maple Leafs too. Frederik Andersen’s knee injury – remember when it wasn’t serious and he would come back anytime? – created space for maturing acquisitions Nick Foligno, David Rittich and Ben Hutton. Andersen, by the way, will be healthy enough to play for the Marlies in a conditioning stint ahead of his return to the Leafs’ lineup, something that doesn’t look like it will go into the playoffs.
Ditto the Penguins and Evgeni Malkin, the Capitals and Michal Kempny.
No one doubts the veracity of the wounds. And who else but the player could really know how injured he is and when he is ready to return? Still, it all smacks of the cap bypass if they all come back just in time for the playoffs, against the spirit of fair play.
It scandalizes some fans and media, but guess what? No general manager cares.
“I don’t think anyone is motivated enough to have a problem with this because they might need help someday,” one club executive told me.
In fact, they admire the GMs who pulled it off, adding depth to get them through a grueling season and even more grueling playoffs.
“The Tampa thing, I don’t have a problem with that,” he said. “If you’re confident enough to go through the trouble of losing a Hart Trophy winner for the whole season, that’s enough. You have to go through the season without this guy. “
This year, the focus was more on calisthenics – due to the pandemic, a flat cap, the presence of players from the taxi team, and exaggerated waiver requests. The Blues are above the cap in part because they have a “retired” Alexander Steen, at $ 5.75 million (US), on the long-term injured reserve. A bit like the Leafs and Stephane Robidas a few years ago.
And maybe if it gets enough attention, Commissioner Gary Bettman could take a look at it. But why would he do it? First of all, there are no salaries paid in the playoffs, only bonuses that are a fraction of what top players earn. His concern through three lockouts has always been to keep costs down and create cost certainty. Mission accomplished on this front.
Right now, Bettman is more concerned with making sure the season is played, the playoffs over, the sponsors satisfied, and the TV contracts fulfilled. He is looking for ways to regenerate the income lost over the past two seasons.
Fighting for lopsided playoff rosters would be an unnecessary distraction.
Auston Matthews is averaging 0.78 goals per game in 2020-21, on track to be the fourth different player in the past 30 years to produce at that rate or more. Mario Lemieux, Wayne Gretzky and Alex Ovechkin are the others. He scored 11 game-winners, tied for the most in Leafs history. And he scored 22% of Toronto’s goals. It may not yet be enough for Matthews to win the Hart Trophy. It’s because of Connor McDavid. He has a 100-point chance in a 56-game season. As Gretzky told Sportsnet’s Mark Spector: “What he does today is much more difficult than I am.”
- Welcome Kraken: The Seattle Kraken officially joined the NHL on Friday, with the option to trade and sign players. The expansion draft will take place on July 21. For Leafs fans, here’s the recap. Teams can protect seven forwards, three defenders and a goalie. Or eight skaters and a goalie. Players heading to unrestricted free agency are exempt (Frederik Andersen, Zach Hyman, Zach Bogosian, Nick Foligno and others). Also players with two years of experience or less (Ilya Mikheyev, Rasmus Sandin, Timothy Liljegren).
If the Leafs went 7-3-1, they would likely protect Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares, William Nylander, Alex Kerfoot, Adam Brooks, Pierre Engvall, Morgan Rielly, TJ Brodie, Jake Muzzin and Jack Campbell. This would expose Justin Holl and Travis Dermott.
If they go 8-1, they would likely add Holl to the Protected List, exposing Kerfoot, Brooks and Engvall alongside Dermott. Michael Hutchinson qualifies as the goaltender the Leafs would expose.
The signing of one of their pending UFAs before July 21 could modify these lists. Signing Andersen, for example, could expose Campbell as only one goalie can be protected.
- Playoff bubbles: The league will only make announcements when needed, using the time that is on their side regarding playoff conditions. But there is still a chance that the four Canadian teams will find themselves in a bubble without supporters in Canada. Or they could go into a fan-allowed bubble in the United States… Once a North Division champion is crowned, if the cross-border rules remain unchanged, the Canadian team would move to an American NHL city. which is already eliminated. If Toronto wins, it might make sense for the Leafs to go to Buffalo. But if their semi-final opponent is in a different time zone, they may end up in a different time zone, closer to the opponent.
- Schedule proposal: The league has a variety of proposals for GMs to consider for next season. The one I like includes: two matches against each team outside the division, four against each opponent within the division and six “at-large” matches. What I like? This means more regular season games between Canadian teams. And that means divisional playoffs. Presumably, that would also mean that the four division champions would be ranked based on points and not geography. So it won’t always be an East-West final. I’m good with it.
- Draft question: So when Brandt Clarke – or any other Canadian prospect who has been to Europe because the OHL didn’t have a season – gets drafted, will he be eligible to play in the AHL next year? if he’s not in the NHL? Normally, it’s mandatory that players be sent back to their major junior teams – in Clarke’s case, the Barrie Colts – if they are not in the NHL after the draft. But Clarke and several others will have been drafted by European teams. These players have never faced such restrictions. Yes, I asked. I did not get any answers. NHL teams were able to retain their OHL Draft picks this year. Bet, they’ve had an appetite for it and might want to rework their arrangement with the CHL.
- A long wait: While fans in Toronto and Montreal eagerly await the Leafs-Canadiens’ first playoff series since 1979, hockey fans in Florida await the first Panthers-Lightning series … ever. The fact that Los Angeles, Anaheim and San Jose met in the playoffs did wonders for hockey in California. Hoping that the Panthers and Lightning – well both good at the same time – will do the same for hockey in Florida.
- Twitter Troll: The Leafs clinched a playoff berth when they hit 67 points. Hmm, 67, 67 – where have we heard that number before? … Nail Yakupov (Avangard Omsk) lifted the KHL Gagarin Cup this week. Twitter pointed out that Yakupov won a league championship before Connor McDavid.
- Miller’s time is up: Ryan Miller has announced he will retire this week and the 2005-14 Leafs breathed a sigh of relief. There was a time when the Leafs would have been better off posting the colon than going to Buffalo if Miller was in the net. Miller lived rent-free in their head. He has more career wins against Toronto than any other team (33). When he was the Sabers’ number one goalie, he went 32-15-3 against Toronto and a .921 save percentage – with just one losing season (2-3-0) of nine.
- Calder Drought: The AHL will not award the Calder Cup this year, for the second consecutive season. The Canadian five-team division won’t even have a playoff. They will crown a champion based on points percentage in the regular season. The winner will receive the Frank S. Mathers Trophy, presented to an American League division or conference champion each year since 1995-1996. Likewise, Atlantic, North and Center will crown non-playoff champions, based on regular season point percentage. Only the Pacific will host a post-season tournament.