After their 4-1 loss to Dallas Tuesday night — their first defeat in regulation since December 16 at Nashville — the Avalanche were headed for the airport area and a trip to Las Vegas.
There, they’ll meet Vegas Wednesday night in potentially a preview of another playoff matchup a year after the Avalanche’s ugly second-round collapse against the Golden Knights.
The TNT game will draw extraordinary international interest for several reasons.
First, of course, the Avalanche, along with the two-time defending Stanley Cup-defending champion Lightning, are one of the league’s marquee draws.
Second, it’s expected to be Jack Eichel’s first game for the Golden Knights following his November acquisition from Buffalo and his subsequent disk replacement surgery on his neck.
The Golden Knights suddenly and coincidentally placed captain Mark Stone, who has had back problems but actually played in the All-Star Game on home ice 10 days ago and against Edmonton on February 8, on Long Term Injury Reserve.
That gets the Golden Knights under the salary cap for now.
The greasy kicker — greasy, NOT as in against the rules, but as in a CBA loophole big enough to drive two Zambonis through it — is that if Stone isn’t activated until the playoffs, there won’t be a cap issue.
There’s no cap in the playoffs.
After the 2004-05 dark season, the NHL got what it wanted from the capitulating NHLPA — a hard cap with far fewer loopholes and exceptions than the caps in the NFL and especially the NBA.
But there are still a few bugs in the system.
This is one of them.
The flaws have come into play in the postseason before, including in 2021, when the Lightning’s Nikita Kucherov missed the entire regular season, had hip surgery and was placed on LTIR before he was activated for the playoffs — when he was spectacular. The NHL said it had kept tabs on all of that, and that nothing was against the rules. The Lightning had a playoff payroll, with Kucherov, of about $98 million, while those sticking to the cap were at $81.5 million. It wasn’t technically against the rules, but it was against the spirit of the rules.
So this is not making a case that the Lightning “cheated.”
It’s agreeing it’s at least against the leveling spirit of the hard cap.
The Golden Knights’ moves also might set forth a challenge to Avalanche GM Joe Sakic to additionally heighten his quest to make an augmenting move or two before the trading deadline — whether that deal involves the Flyers’ Claude Giroux or anyone else.
That’s because while there is no guarantee of an Avs-Knights rematch, it all changes the Western Conference dynamic.
“I’m not going to speculate on their injuries and whatnot,” Avalanche captain Gabe Landeskog said Tuesday night when I asked him about the Knights’ maneuvering. “We’re excited to go play Vegas. We haven’t seen them in a long time. It should be a good opportunity for us to go on the road. We’re starting a long road trip here, and bounce back on the road.”
Landeskog said of Eichel: “Listen, we’re going in to play the Vegas Golden Knights. We’re not going in to play Jack Eichel. We know he’s a superstar in this league. I think most of our team knows what he’s about as a player and how skilled he is.”
I also asked Avalanche coach Jared Bednar if he had any reflection on the Knights’ moves.
“No,” he said. “I couldn’t care less. That’s their team. They do whatever they have to do. Stone’s had some back issues. I’m sure they’re using this time to get him fully rested and healthy before they go into the stretch run.”
This is why it’s farcical.
The league is watching all of this, including monitoring injuries. Kucherov underwent surgery. Stone unquestionably is banged-up and has back issues. (Wince.)
The Avs technically could declare a banged-up Mikko Rantanen or Landeskog or Nathan MacKinnon suddenly unable to play the rest of the regular season and put them on LTIR, and easily afford a Claude Giroux and his $8.25 million cap hit. Then, they could activate any of them in time for the playoffs.
That’s not a realistic possibility, of course. The league would not allow whole-cloth concoction non-existent injuries. But if a true shot-term injury, or an accumulation of bumps and bruises come up for a high-salaried star, he could rest up for the playoffs.
Are the Avs above skating around the spirit of the cap and the rules, too? As long as they don’t out-and-out break them?
Of course they are.
This is not directly analogous, because it predates the cap. But there was considerable resentment of the Avalanche in 2001-02, when Peter Forsberg sat out the entire regular season because of his notorious foot issues — then rejoined the Avalanche for the playoffs and had nine goals and 18 assists in 20 games. The resentment wasn’t about financial issues, since there was no cap, but rather was tied to the concept that a player should have to appear in the regular season to be eligible for the playoffs.
The Stanley Cup is alluring.
POSTSCRIPT: Jack Eichel and Gabriel Landeskog took part in a ceremonial faceoff before the Sabres-Avalanche game in Denver in February 2000. (Click below to see the video.) “Dropping” the puck was a 97-year-old Windsor, Colorado resident, Leila Morrison. As a World War II combat nurse, she came ashore at Omaha Beach and followed the 118th Evacuation Hospital across Europe. She witnessed both the carnage of battle and, at Buchenwald concentration camp, the results of the horrific actions of Nazi Germany in implementing the unspeakable “Final Solution.” My profile of this remarkable woman.
Before tonight’s game, 97-year old Leila Morrison, a World War II nurse dropped the puck prior to face-off. 💪
Thank you, Leila. ❤️ pic.twitter.com/Dv61Ej3hbj
— Olympic Hockey on NBC (@NBCSportsHockey) February 27, 2020
Terry Frei (email@example.com, @tfrei) is a Denver-based author and journalist. He has been named a state’s sportswriter of the year seven times in peer voting — four times in Colorado and three times in Oregon. His seven books include the novels “Olympic Affair” and “The Witch’s Season.” Among his five non-fiction works are “Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming,” “Third Down and a War to Go,” “March 1939: Before the Madness,” and “’77: Denver, the Broncos, and a Coming of Age.” He also collaborated with Adrian Dater on “Save By Roy,” was a long-time vice president of the Professional Hockey Writers Association and has covered the hockey Rockies, Avalanche and the NHL at-large. His web site is www.terryfrei.com and his bio is available at www.terryfrei.com/bio.html
His Colorado Hockey Now column archive can be accessed here