How the Vegas Golden Knights are ready to circumvent the cap again (and why the Canucks can’t do the same)

Photo credit:© Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
Stephan Roget
1 month ago
Great news, Vancouver fans!
The Canucks’ strongest Pacific Division rival, the Vegas Golden Knights, just had to place their top centre, Jack Eichel, on long-term injured reserve.
And with the Golden Knights already a full ten points behind the Canucks in the Pacific race, one has to think this greatly increases the odds of the Canucks taking the divisional crown and securing home-ice advantage in the playoffs.
At the very least, there’s no way that this is actually somehow good news for the Golden Knights, and something that could greatly disadvantage the Canucks, right? That wouldn’t make any sense. There’s just no way that a rival losing their top centre for potentially the final two months of the season is something the Canucks should be worried about.
Right? Right?!
Wrong. Welcome to the zany world of the NHL salary cap and LTIR relief space, in which mile-wide loopholes exist and the league seems hesitant to close them – almost certainly because said loopholes seem to exclusively benefit the big-spending franchises, like Vegas.
This is nothing new, of course, either in the NHL in general or in Vegas in specific. Last year, it was Mark Stone. This year, it’s Jack Eichel.
For the uninitiated, how it works is this: contrary to popular belief, placing a player on LTIR doesn’t gain a team any bonus cap space. Instead, it essentially grants that team the ability to overspend the cap by up to the amount of the LTIRed player’s cap hit for the duration of that player’s absence.
In order for that injured player to return, however, they need to be able to fit back in under the cap. The idea here, and the best way to think about it, is for LTIR relief space to act as a temporary bit of spending flexibility to see teams through both in-season snafus and, occasionally, season- or career-ending injuries.
But here’s the twist: the salary cap does not exist in the playoffs. As soon as the schedule flips over from “regular” to “postseason,” the salary cap goes away, as do almost all restrictions related to it.
Thus, it’s not a very hard loophole to figure out. A team places a player on LTIR, spends that player’s relief space on a new acquisition at or near the Trade Deadline, and then keeps that player on LTIR for the remainder of the regular season, thus never needing to re-open any cap space.
Then, lo and behold, by some miraculous providence that player is ready and willing to play in Game 1 of the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Thus, their team gets to operate in the postseason with a roster well over and above the supposed cap ceiling.
This has been happening since at least 2015, when the Chicago Blackhawks held Patrick Kane out of the lineup until Game 1. They used his LTIR relief space to pick up Antoine Vermette, Kimmo Timonen, and Andrew Desjardins, and that extra depth helped the Blackhawks win the Cup that year.
So too for the Golden Knights of 2022/23. They used Stone’s placement on LTIR to add players like Ivan Barbashev, Jonathan Quick, and our ol’ pal Teddy Blueger in-season, and then road that extra depth to hockey’s ultimate glory – with Stone along for every step of the way, too.
That’s exactly why so many eyebrows are raised as Eichel hits the LTIR just two weeks ahead of the March 8 deadline.
Now, there’s little doubt that Eichel is actually injured. He’s certainly battled several throughout his career, and this current one has kept him out of the lineup since January 11, a total of 13 missed games and counting.
Technically, the Golden Knights could have placed him on retroactive LTIR a few games ago. They seem to have waited until they had a “legitimate” reason to do so, in this case the activating of Shea Theodore from LTIR.
But even with Theodore activated, the numbers here are a little frightening. The Golden Knights have three players on LTIR (Eichel, Robin Lehner, and Tobias Bjornfot) and two on regular IR right now, and a functional amount of deadline cap space somewhere in excess of $8.5 million.
Even when the two IRed players, William Carrier and Pavel Dorofeyev, are activated and moved to the active roster, the Golden Knights don’t lose any of that space. In fact, they get to boot a couple of call-ups off the roster in place of Carrier and Dorofeyev, and actually gain functional cap space out of the exchange.
Put it all together, and the Golden Knights will have the ability to spend approximately an extra $10 million at the Trade Deadline.
That’s provided, of course, that the plan is to keep Eichel out of the lineup for the remainder of the regular season. But, at this point, why wouldn’t it be? There have been no updates on his recovery and no timetable provided for his return. The Golden Knights have already shown that they’re perfectly comfortable with this tactic – and the NHL has shown that they are, too, formally finding last year that Vegas committed no actual cap circumvention, at least not by the narrow legal definition.
So, with their strongest rival potentially loading up shortly, why can’t the Canucks pull off something similar?
The easy and short answer is a distinct lack of injured players. Which, don’t get us wrong, is a huge advantage in and of itself. The Canucks have three players on some form of injured reserve at the moment. Tucker Poolman and Guillaume Brisebois are both considered permanently out at this point, thus incurring some relief space, but most of that money is already spent.
With Carson Soucy on IR, the Canucks have a little less than $300,000 in functional cap space, which can actually be counted on as a little more than $1 million, once the cap space gained by demoting Soucy’s replacement upon his re-activation is considered.
If the Canucks wanted to, they could place Soucy on LTIR retroactively. He’s been out since January 20th, and has already missed 12 games. In doing so, the Canucks would gain up to an extra $3.25 million in spending space for the deadline, representing Soucy’s cap hit.
But the trick only works if the Canucks are planning on keeping Soucy out for all of the remaining 25 games of the regular season, a full eight weeks from now.
That’s a long time. And it’s a big risk. Soucy plays an important role on the Canucks’ blueline, and they’re not so clear-cut of a contender yet as to feel entirely confident eschewing his contributions. There’s also the fact that Soucy has already missed plenty of time this year, and probably both wants and needs to be in the lineup as much of possible heading into the postseason.
The Golden Knights are at an advantage both in having the depth to cover Eichel’s absence, and especially in having already won the Stanley Cup last year. If they somehow screw up by keeping Eichel out this long, resulting in him coming back cold and the Knights bowing out in the first round, so be it. They’ve already won the thing.
The stakes are much different, and much higher, for the Canucks.
Forget, too, about the idea of trading for a player already on LTIR. This is, essentially, a misconception about how LTIR works and not something that can actually happen in real life. For example, if the Canucks were to convince the Golden Knights to trade them the aforementioned Lehner, on permanent LTIR with a $5 million cap hit, they would technically gain up to that $5 million in relief space. But that same $5 million in space would immediately be spoken for…by Lehner and his $5 million cap hit. No functional cap space would be gained by such a move.
No such luck for the Canucks this year.
And, to be honest, it sounds weird to say it like that, because the Canucks have actually been enormously fortunate to not suffer any major injuries as of yet on the 2023/24 campaign. And, on the other hand, it’s tough to call losing a player as good as Eichel for multiple months as a stroke of good luck.
It’s just that certain franchises seem to keep having these injuries crop up at exactly the most convenient time to exploit a well-known loophole, and one of those teams just so happens to be in Vancouver’s division. Could Gary Bettman and Co. close it if they wanted to? Of course! It would be as simple as creating a rule by which any 20-player roster for any playoff game must be underneath that season’s cap ceiling.
But thus far, the league seems uninterested in doing so.
Then again, would it really be Canucks hockey without the NHL having stacked the odds against them, at least a little?

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