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I'm trying to understand how the Tampa Bay Lightning were $18 million over the salary cap when they won the Stanley Cup in 2021.

I would guess if theres a salary cap and you try to sign a contract or trade a player and it would land you over the cap the league would just step in to say 'no, there are rules and this would break them'

But no, they got to 18 million over the cap and still continued to play with all those players.

So how does one get above the salary cap and not seem to be penalized in any way? (and if there were penalities, what were they?)

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There are exemptions for injured players, where the team continues to pay the salary but it does not count to their cap. So, although Tampa Bay had a payroll over the cap, they did not actually exceed the cap.

They were able to have one of these players actually return for the playoffs, since the cap is for the regular season roster. A bit of a quirk of the rules, but still not really exceeding the cap as the rules define it.

See for example https://www.tampabay.com/sports/lightning/2021/06/11/two-words-about-nikita-kucherov-and-the-salary-cap-tough-noogies/

Between Kucherov, Marian Gaborik, Anders Nilsson and a brief stay by Steven Stamkos, the Lightning spent roughly $18 million higher than the $81.5 million salary cap by putting players on the long-term injured list. This is completely within the NHL’s rules. The idea is that teams should not be penalized for losing a top player to a major injury, which is exactly what happened with Kucherov after his December hip surgery.

Since the salary cap is not enforced during the postseason, Kucherov was free to return once his rehab was completed. (Which means the Lightning’s active roster is only about $9 million above the salary cap during the playoffs, but that’s splitting hairs.)

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  • So basically: Player has a salary of 18M, but was injured so counts for 0. The team shuffles around to fill that hole in the salary cap. Player comes back for the playoffs, but the count is already made. So he's paid 18M, is worth that, but since he was out when the calculation was made, he doesnt count on the cap.
    – Fredy31
    Jul 12 at 20:09
  • @Fredy31 Yes, that's correct. Jul 12 at 20:09
  • Gonna guess that the changes to cap rules people have been talking about will probably be that this calculation will be done round to round or even on who are the players that are in uniform every night. But for that, only the future will tell.
    – Fredy31
    Jul 12 at 20:17
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    Note that this rule is part of the CBA and therefore the NHL cannot unilaterally change it; it would require the agreement of the NHLPA to change it before the current CBA expires in 2026.
    – Philip Kendall
    Jul 12 at 20:48
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This is due to Nikita Kucherov and his injury. The NHL Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) specifies that players' salaries are paid only during the regular season, and Kucherov was injured for the entire regular season, so counts as $0 against the cap - so the Lightning were technically never over the cap at all.

Note that this isn't anything "new" or something teams weren't aware of - exactly the same thing happened with Patrick Kane in 2016.

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This is a textbook example of cap manipulation.

The salary of the players under the Long Term Injury Reserves (LTIR) doesn't count towards the salary cap for their team. The player is still payed, but it just doesn't count against the cap. This is to allow teams to replace a player while they're out with long term injuries. But once a player comes back the salary they earn from that point will be counted towards the cap.

But the big caveat about the cap in the NHL is that, it's not in effect come playoff time! In the postseason you can go over the cap. This is the important part.

So the Lightning put Nikita Kucherov, arguably their best skater, on LTIR this season as he underwent hip surgery, used the cap the move freed up to sign and trade other pieces to help them during the regular season. Once the playoffs started, and cap wasn't an issue any more Kucherov was started playing and ended up scoring more points than any other skater.

It was clear that Kucherov was healthy enough to return during the season, but the Bolts made a tactical move where they sat him out and only brought him out for the playoffs to maximize their odds of winning.

Some teams and players (notably Dougie Hamilton) didn't enjoy the move as they saw it as cheating the cap rules. However, the move had been done before as the Chicago Blackhawks had done the same thing in 2015. And in a bit of twist, the Tampa Bay Lightning were the only team at the time that requested a change to the rule so teams like Chicago wouldn't be able to repeat such manipulation.

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    – Nij
    Jul 14 at 2:19

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