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Flat salary cap forcing NHL teams become creative

Tampa Bay Lightning left wing Alex Killorn, left, celebrates in front of Chicago Blackhawks center Pius Suter after scoring during the second period last Friday in Tampa, Fla. (AP file photo)

In the 16 years since the salary cap has been a reality in the NHL, it never has been this much of a challenge to maneuver.

Teams that made moves in 2019 and right up to the 2020 trade deadline expected the cap to increase substantially from the current $81.5 million. Then the coronavirus pandemic hit, the league and players’ association agreed to freeze the ceiling at that number and executives had to get creative to be cap-compliant for opening night of the most unusual season in hockey history.

The defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning set a roster that, when injury allowances are factored in, is just $334 from the cap ceiling. It’s a similar situation for the St. Louis Blues, who are within $300,000 of the cap with hopes of adding Vladimir Tarasenko when he’s ready to return from another shoulder operation. The Vegas Golden Knights started with the an unusual lineup of five defensemen and 13 forwards because they figured playing short on the blue line was less risky than exposing a young player to waivers.

“This is the hardest year to manage a flat cap,” Blues general manager Doug Armstrong said by phone. “It’s certainly no one’s fault at the league or the PA or the players or the management. It just caught everybody off guard.”

A team can’t be over the cap and would have to play with fewer than the standard 18 skaters if necessary.

What’s usually a difficult balancing act became a trapeze show this year for GMs and their cap gurus to save every dollar. According to the database site Puckpedia, 22 of 31 teams either started the season using the long-term injured reserve exemption to go over or were within $2 million of the cap.

The Lightning faced a crunch before becoming bubble hockey champions and were only able to avoid more treacherous cap gymnastics and losses when star Nikita Kucherov was lost for months because of a hip injury that required surgery.

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