Nikita Kucherov sat out the entire 2021 National Hockey League regular season after undergoing hip surgery. He returned to the lineup of the reigning Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning in time for the opening game of this spring’s playoffs against Tampa Bay’s cross-state rivals, the Florida Panthers.
All of the best sportsbooks in Vegas are backing the Lightning as legitimate contenders to repeat as Stanley Cup champions and the return to action of Kucherov certainly adds even more intrigue to the potential of another deep playoff run for the Bolts. Especially taking into consideration the manner in which Kucherov launched his postseason.
As the visiting Lightning battled for a 5-4 victory in Game 1 of their best-of-seven Central Division semifinal series on the road against the Panthers, Kucherov was a significant factor in the outcome. He scored two goals and assisted on a third tally as Tama Bay rallied from 2-1 and 4-3 deficits for the victory.
“I was excited to get back,” Kucherov told the Tampa Bay Times. “I waited for this for a long time.”
A Welcome Return
Naturally, his Tampa Bay teammates were giddy to get their superstar score back in the fold. In 2018-19, Kucherov won the Art Ross Trophy as NHL scoring champion, leading the league with 128 points. He also was awarded the Hart Trophy as the MVP of the NHL.
Last year, Kucherov produced 34 points in 25 games as Tampa Bay won the Stanley Cup for the first time since 2003-04.
“He (was) like a kid waiting for a candy store to open,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “And he gets there a half-hour early and has to wait outside.
“When we first went through this process way back when, we were like, ‘Kuch isn’t coming back, we have to at least make it to the second round for him to come back.’ Sure enough, he found his way back in Game 1.
“It takes a lot of mental fortitude to be able to work yourself back when you’re not allowed to play 56 straight straight games. Man, he hasn’t played in 7½ months, that’s tough. To come out and have the game he did? He deserves it because I watched the kid work his butt off to get here.”
Since 2015, Tampa Bay is 25-4 in playoff games in which Kucherov scored a goal, so getting him back into the fold was considered to be a vital requirement.
“It speaks to Kuch’s dedication as a hockey player,” Tampa Bay forward Brayden Point said. “I don’t know that there’s anyone who works on their game harder than Kuch does. To sit out that long and to have a (hip) repair and go through all of that rehab and come out in a very fast and physical game to perform the way he did, it’s incredible.”
Not Everyone Was So Excited
Elsewhere in NHL circles, Kucherov’s return was marked with vitriol and disdain. He’d returned to practice with the Lightning in March but Tampa Bay, hard up against the NHL salary cap, kept Kucherov on the long-term injured list for two months while he skated, meaning that his salary didn’t count against the cap.
In the playoffs, there is no salary cap enforcement, so the Lightning didn’t need to move any money in order to make room for him. Detractors saw this as Tampa Bay circumventing the rules of the salary cap and basically making a mockery of the system.
Was It Cheating?
Accountants would call this creative bookkeeping. Lawyers would view it as finding and exploiting a loophole.
It’s easy to jump all over the Lightning and label them as cheaters, rather than acknowledge the fact of life that Tampa Bay GM Julien BriseBois and his staff found a method to circumvent the cap and solve what for them was a very difficult and potentially disastrous scenario. Had they brought Kucherov and his $5.55 million salary back into the lineup during the regular season, some other big-name would have required elimination from the roster in order to balance the books.
Instead, they found a way to circumvent the system in a manner that while it might look bad, isn’t strictly forbidden. And until the NHL acts to close this loophole, it’s foolhardy to criticize the Lightning for finding a path that worked to their advantage.
As the saying goes, don’t hate the player, hate the game that made this possible.