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Don’t Blame the Lightning for Playing by the Rules

The Tampa Bay Lightning have been under intense scrutiny from fans under the notion that the team purposefully circumvented the salary cap by creating a stacked roster in the post-season. Don't blame the player, blame the rules that allowed for it to happen.
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More than a half-decade ago, when I was working for the Toronto Maple Leafs’ website, I had a lengthy conversation with then-Leafs GM Lou Lamoriello, and the topic of video replay came around.

Replay was a subject that very much was on people’s minds at the time, and Lamoriello made a key point – and one that applies to a different, much more contentious topic in the hockey world at this time: namely, the notion that the Tampa Bay Lightning have purposefully circumvented the salary cap by creating a stacked roster in the post-season, one that goes far over and above the $81.5-million upper cap limit:

MapleLeafs.com: When it comes to video replay, the debate continues, and I've wavered on it in recent years. I do think it can help, but ultimately, the decision on any one play is going to be made subjectively by someone along the way, and there's never a perfect solution to please everyone. What are your thoughts on video replay's place in the league?

Lou Lamoriello: “Well, let's put it this way and not waste a lot of time: video is here to stay. It's not going anywhere. So how can we define it in such a way that it doesn't impede progress, doesn't slow the game down, and does the right thing for the game to get the right decisions, and yet keep the human decision process on the ice? I think the league, the general managers and everyone is working very diligently towards that, whether it be with offside, whether it be with traffic in front of the net. I think we have to be careful how far we go with it. And I think we also have to look at the rules and maybe word them a little better, so that there's more clarity on some of the things that we're expecting the officials to call.”

If you missed the most important part of that answer, Lamoriello elaborated on it specifically as part of the reply to the same question:

Lamoriello: We need more clarity through no one's fault, it's just the way these things come about. There's always going to be these extenuating circumstances and situations that come up. That's why you have a situation book. I go back to my other past (working in baseball), and some of the greatest humour I've found is reading the baseball situation book, Because you'd never think of some of the things that come up. And that's exactly what's transpiring in our game today, and it's because of TV. It's because of replay. It's because of the microscopic analyzing of the game, frame-to-frame. It's no different then the double play, or who's safe, or is it a touchdown. This is the world we live in today.”

Lamoriello’s observance on how NHL rules come to be altered/updated can be applied in a number of different ways: in the changes the league and NHL Players’ Association agree on in every off-season, but also in terms of how the league reacts to in-season incidents not covered under its rulebook at the time. The most infamous example of this real-time flexibility is the so-called “Sean Avery Rule”, which came about virtually instantly in April of 2008 after then-New-York Ranger Avery set up shop in front of New Jersey Devils goalie Martin Brodeur, and instead of facing toward the other end of the ice as is the norm, Avery turned and faced Brodeur head-on, attempting to distract him/screen him by waving his stick in Brodeur’s face.

The league had never seen anything like it, but there was no specific rule banning Avery from doing what he did. However, within one day, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and his management team amended the unsportsmanlike conduct rule to prohibit Avery and anyone else from competing in that specific manner. The league essentially balked, with neither discussion nor debate, and moved as swiftly as it could to establish a new, more wide-ranging rule. Viewed through Lamoriello’s concept, the league was updating its “situation book” when a new situation occurred.

Now that you’re up to date on how an NHL icon like Lamoriello sees the fluidity of the rulebook, try applying that same line of thought to the Lightning cap-circumvention accusations. Leave aside the fact the league has investigated the Bolts’ situation and did not come away by leveling a guilty verdict against Tampa Bay. Let’s simply look at the rules and judge the Lightning by them. And let’s underscore what is a clear truth: almost all NHL teams in the NHL employ a “salary cap expert”, whose chief duty is to examine the rules as stated and push the envelope any way it can, in the same way Washington Capitals forward Tom Wilson has become notorious for playing the game by pushing the limits of what the rulebook says he can and can’t do. Nobody is saying teams have broken those rules by paying smart people to investigate and exploit the limits of the cap system; it is almost implicit that teams utilize cap experts to give them all advantages, in the same way civilians hire tax lawyers to allow them to keep as much of their money as is possible.

If all NHL teams were as incensed by Tampa Bay’s regular-and-post-season machinations as some fans are, there would’ve been an outcry by this time; Bettman’s investigators would have brought up immediate charges and punishments; and the collective bargaining agreement would’ve been updated/tightened up to prevent similar situations from recurring. However, this isn’t what happened – and when it was time for the CBA to be renewed last year, the league and NHLPA allowed the same system to remain in place. Now, there may come a time when the league chooses to alter cap rules and restrictions in the post-season, but that would have to be agreed upon by all parties. The fact it hasn’t been speaks to the NHL’s acceptance of the status quo.

All this is to say, don’t blame the Lightning for competing off the ice as ferociously as they compete on it. Bolts GM Julien BriseBois and his employees are working under the system as they interpret it, and the onus is on the league to discern whether they’ve gone too far. Clearly, Bettman & Co. believe they haven’t, and although some can talk about violating the “spirit” of the cap world, you can’t say Tampa Bay has erred on any front.

As Lamoriello said, there is “always going to be these extenuating circumstances and situations that come up”. He was referring to on-ice rule evolutions, but the same approach governs the NHL’s bookkeeping regulations. This is the world we live in today, and until the league states, clearly and forcefully, that teams must change their cap approach, there always will be specialists expressly interested in finding advantages in it.

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