One issue that has been in the headlines a lot over the past few years has been the NHL’s rules surrounding the long-term injury reserve (LTIR). At the GM meetings in Flordia, the issue was brought up, but the 32 NHL stewards decided that they’d reconvene on the issue in July at their next meetings.
As it stands currently, NHL teams can exceed the salary cap while they have a player on LTIR but must become cap compliant again when they return to the lineup.
The issue with this is that the salary cap does not apply during the NHL playoffs, meaning that teams can bring injured players back during that time and compete for the Stanley Cup with a roster that would not be cap compliant during the regular season. While in theory this makes sense to help teams replace players that are injured for the season, it’s ripe for exploitation.
Over the last couple of seasons, we have seen a few instances of star players returning from LTIR for the playoffs. Nikita Kucherov missed the entire 2020-21 season but was ready to go for the first game of the playoffs. He led the league in playoff points on the journey to lifting the Stanley Cup. Kucherov marks just one example of what’s becoming an exploding trend.
After the Lightning beat the Hurricanes in that year’s playoffs, then-Carolina defender Dougie Hamilton said “we lost to a team that’s $18 million over the cap.”
This season, the Vegas Golden Knights are a team with a few big names on LTIR that could return for the playoffs including captain Mark Stone. After their midseason acquisition of Jack Eichel, a fully healthy lineup for the Golden Knights would be well over the salary cap. Keeping Stone on LTIR until the playoffs would make that a possibility, though they sure would appreciate his presence in the playoff race right now.
Because of these high-profile incidents, LTIR has become a hot topic of discussion with decision-makers around the league. There were reportedly discussions about the rule at the recent GM meetings in Florida, though more substantial discussions figure to happen in the summer. If the league does decide to make a change, here are what a few possible solutions could look like.
Salary Cap for the Playoffs
One of the easiest solutions to this problem would be to keep the salary cap for the playoffs. This is a simple fix that would still allow teams to get cap relief from players on LTIR during the regular season but would avoid teams loading up on rentals at the deadline that are only cap-compliant because of the rule.
The counterargument to this rule would be that it would restrict the team’s ability to ice the best players during the postseason. Everyone wants to see the most talent on the ice as possible and enacting rules that go against that is not advised.
Minimum Regular Season Games Threshold
Another simple solution would be to enact a threshold of a certain amount of regular-season games a player must play to be eligible for the playoffs. While this wouldn’t fix teams acquiring rentals at the deadline with LTIR cap relief, it would fix situations like Kucherov missing the entire regular season before returning for the first game of the playoffs.
This would be a good solution if decision-makers around the league decided that the only issue with LTIR is players missing the entire year and then returning for the playoffs. However, this might also get tricky when they have to decide where to set that threshold.
Increase the Minimum Games Missed for LTIR
As it currently stands, to qualify for LTIR a player must be expected to miss at least 10 games and 24 days of the season. One way that teams could ensure that the LTIR doesn’t get abused for short-term cap manipulation would be to increase both of those numbers.
This would mean that moving a player to LTIR would be a real commitment as he couldn’t play again for a significant period of time. However, this wouldn’t solve situations like that with Kucherov and the Lightning.
LTIR is Season-Ending
Another solution would be for any player that is moved to LTIR to be deemed ineligible to return that season. This would make LTIR a place for players with season-ending injuries and then it would make perfect sense to allow cap relief.
One issue with this is that it can be hard to determine how long a player will be out. Sometimes injuries heal faster or slower than expected and determining if a player is going to miss the entire season can be difficult when there are still months before the playoffs.
Do you think that the NHL has an issue with the long-term injury reserve? If not, which proposed solution would you like to see the league adopt?