Pulling a Kucherov: Mark Stone and cap circumvention in contending teams

Vegas Golden Knights right wing Mark Stone (61) skates around Tampa Bay Lightning right wing Nikita Kucherov (86) during the third period of an NHL hockey game Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2020, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O’Meara)

Jack Eichel is all set to make his Vegas Golden Knights debut on the 16th against the Colorado Avalanche. In November, he was traded from the Buffalo Sabres before undergoing a neck surgery viewed as potentially risky. Eichel has made a full recovery and now will step onto the ice for a fresh start with a new team. There is just one problem: Eichel’s salary puts the Knight over the salary cap. Eichel has a cap hit of 10 million, and with the Knights’ already expensive roster, many have speculated how they will get his salary to fit under the cap. 

The NHL is a hard cap league meaning that if a team exceeds the salary cap during the regular season, the team faces penalties like high-level fines, the cancellation of contracts, forfeiture of games, and loss of points. That is why teams often will rather play short-handed instead of go over the cap, which is what Vegas did last year playing multiple games with a depleted roster. However, the second the playoffs start, the salary cap ceases to exist. This has created a new strategy for salary cap circumvention, which can be fondly and colloquially referred to as “Kucherov-ing” or “pulling a Kucherov.” 

“Kucherov-ing” or “pulling a Kucherov” refers to the practice of strategically moving a large salary player, usually a star player, onto Long Term Injury Reserve (LTIR) until the playoffs start. When a player is put on LTIR, their salary no longer counts against the cap, so suddenly, there is cap space where there was not before. Even though a similar move to “Kucherov-ing” was performed by the 2015 Blackhawks, it is most famous for its use by Julien BriseBois, GM of the Tampa Bay Lightning. Last year, the Lightning, coming off their first Stanley Cup, moved winger Nikita Kucherov on to LTIR for him to get surgery. They said he would return for the playoffs but didn’t specify he would come back before. Kucherov’s surgery was successful, and despite footage of him skating at practice a while before the playoffs,  he did not return until the beginning of the playoffs. The Lightning went on to win the cup again, but they were 17.3 million over the cap when they did. Kucherov’s cap hit is 9.5 million. Tampa had many pending Free agents and lots of accumulated salary. Instead of trading and downgrading to fit under the cap like many teams do, they helped Kucherov plan his surgery so that he would be ready by game one of the playoffs. It is cap circumvention, and while it seems like cheating, there is actually no rule against it. 

Many argued that Kucherov’s injury couldn’t be planned and that recovery from surgery cannot be fudged. Still, the critical distinction here is that Tampa did not orchestrate the whole thing instead utilized surgery for their best interests. Vegas was far more brazen. 

With Eichel being added to the lineup and slated to play, The Knights are similar to Tampa. They are a legitimate contender with a legitimate cap problem. Eichel joined the roster, and suddenly, Mark Stone was placed on LTIR. Stone was on LTIR earlier in the season;  he returned to play but not to his ordinarily high skill level. The Knights are announcing that Stone has a back injury and needs to go on LTIR. They have not released a timeline on when he might be back, nor have they revealed a surgery planned like Kucherov. Instead, Vegas circumvents the cap, and Stone rest the nagging injuries he had been dealing with ahead of the playoffs. It could also provide Vegas general manager Kelly McCrimmon more time to move salaries out on trades rather than suffering the regular season cap consequences. All in all, with a team as talented as Vegas, in first place in their division, putting Mark Stone on LTIR has almost no downside for the Knights, only positive advantages. 

Stone’s placement on LTIR cannot be disguised as anything more than cap circumvention, but what can the NHL actually do about it? Not much; utilizing LTIR to your advantage is not explicitly against the rules, but there are some suggestions on how you can prevent “Kucherov-ing” from occurring again. 

The NHL could simply crackdown on the exploitation of LTIR for cap circumvention purposes. They could impose fines or punish teams that are blatantly violating league rules. The NHL famously is not fond of when teams break money-related rules and has imposed harsh fines for cap circumvention in the past. However, that requires investigation and meddling with the owners, which Commissioner Gary Bettman doesn’t seem inclined to do. It might also require too much privacy invasion when digging into a player’s medical status. 

A rule could be imposed that requires players to play at least one game in the regular season to play in the playoffs. This definitely remedies the original Kucherov situation but not in Vegas. It can limit one form of cap circumvention, but the Stone LTIR case seems even more blatantly a cap move than Kucherov, who had a scheduled surgery instead of the nebulous “back injury” of Stone. Vegas’s recent use of LTIR  is more egregious, and this method wouldn’t provide any reason to deter them from using it.

The NHL could impose fines next season based on cap violations in the playoffs. The NHL could place a fine or a punishment (like stripping first-round picks) for exceeding the cap in the playoffs. But this is also imperfect; the playoffs have a high occurrence of injuries, so teams often carry extra salary, ensuring that an injured or tired player can be replaced. Getting rid of this safety net in the playoffs could contribute to players playing through injuries more than normally or overextending themselves without adequate support. It also isn’t really a punishment if your team wins the cup. Whatever penalty they may face the following year doesn’t matter if they win. The cup means more than any lost draft picks or money. 

The NHL could eliminate the hard cap altogether and switch to a soft cap and luxury tax system instead. The soft-cap and luxury tax models still impose a cap but allow teams to exceed the cap if they pay a prescribed fine. This keeps the competitive edge and doesn’t require vaguely sinister maneuvers to stay cap compliant. Obviously, the quality of play has increased with players like Stone and Kucherov being on their teams, so why punish players and teams for having stars and paying their players fairly. The argument for getting rid of the hard salary cap requires a whole new article in itself, but the cap makes teams play with college students as backup goalies or with a diminished roster, and how is that good for increasing the appeal of hockey to the world? Clearly, it would be better for the game and players if top talent were surrounded by solid players and paid fairly for their worth. 

Once again, the salary cap has foiled a GM’s construction plans, and once again, a GM has tried to work around the system by “pulling a Kucherov,” exploiting LTIR for the team’s gain. Eichel returns to the Knights lineup tonight and is the prize protected in Stone’s movement onto LTIR. If the Knights have a deep playoff run or win the cup this year, their victory will be an even more blatant example of disregarding and circumventing the salary cap.

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