At some point in the next couple days, the Tampa Bay Lightning will win their second consecutive Cup. Could be tonight, or maybe the Canadiens have one last death rattle in them and send this series back to Tampa on Wednesday. It’s hockey, weird things happen, we’ve seen 0-3 comebacks, but here it’s all over except the shouting. The Bolts will become the second team this century to repeat as champs, and cement their place as one of the best teams of this era. And one of the best organizations of this era.
That last part seems to be getting lost a bit this spring (and now summer). Whenever the Lightning advance, you can hear a dull roar of grumbling among whoever they leave in their wake. Here’s some — that the Lightning gamed the system by having Nikita Kucherov miss the regular season, which kept them cap compliant, only to just roll him out in the playoffs for an unfair advantage.
Like most thoughts and complaints in hockey, it doesn’t hold much water. And what players and fans of anyone else are really jealously bitching about is that their own teams weren’t as adept at roster-building.
First off, it’s not as if they just kept Kucherov in a dark room hoping no one would see him all year. He had hip surgery, which isn’t exactly easy for a hockey player to deal with. Even if Kucherov could have muscled through the season on a bum hip and been a shell of himself, opting for surgery wasn’t just some vacation.
Which goes along with the idea that Kucherov has some sort of advantage in not playing all year and then getting to be fresh for the playoffs while everyone else is dealing with the physical and mental effects of his pandemic season. Kucherov is leading the playoffs in points...which he also did last year. And he won an MVP the year before that. It’s likely that he’s just that good. And coming in off the street and dropping into playoff-paced games and not just keeping up but being the most noticeable player on the ice at times takes more than a smile. It should be more a testament to his talents than some indictment of joining a race halfway through or something.
What the Lightning did isn’t new. The Hawks in 2015 used a broken collarbone for Patrick Kane, then the leading contender for MVP, as a means to go over the cap and acquire Antoine Vermette and Kimmo Timonen (one of these worked out much better than the other) on their way to a third Cup in six years. Teams have been gaming the Long-Term Injury Reserve portion of the salary cap forever. The Lightning just did it better, because they have better players.
What the conversation should be about is just how impressive it is that the Lightning can be without an MVP-level player, and still cruise to a playoff spot in a division that had two other Cup-worthy teams without really having to get out of second gear. Name another team that could do it. Take Sasha Barkov off the Panthers and they would have been scrapping for a playoff spot. The Knights have that kind of depth, and they spent a good portion of the season using 15 skaters in games to stay under the cap. That’s no less gaming the system than what the Lightning did, but you’ll hear less bitching about that because it’s seen as a hardship. Also probably didn’t help them keep their levels against the Canadiens in the third round, did it? Is the Lightning going without an MVP for a whole season any less of an obstacle?
The Lightning are here because they draft or sign undrafted players better than anyone. Ten of the skaters who will claim the Cup some time this week were drafted or signed out of college/juniors by the Lightning, including their entire top line. Or they fleece teams in trades, a fact Canadiens fans are getting a first-hand account of this series watching Mikhail Sergachev. Or they somehow rehab veterans from other teams. Ryan McDonagh looked absolutely finished in New York. David Savard was a glorified oaf in Columbus. I personally cursed the name of Jan Rutta in Chicago to the point of asphyxiation. Blake Coleman was a useful, if unspectacular, middle-six winger in New Jersey. He then has a career year with Tampa, because of course he does.
Oh, and if Kucherov’s injury absence had stretched into the playoffs it wouldn’t have affected Andrei Vasilevskiy’s .938 save percentage much.
No, this is all a testament to how the Lightning are just run better at every level than every other team. Everyone will get their pound of flesh eventually. The NHL salary cap comes for all, and this summer the Lightning will probably have to lose Tyler Johnson, or Yanni Gourde, or Sergachev, or some combination thereof. But most teams that get cap crunched don’t have two parades in the bag when they do.