Golden Knights’ Salary Cap Gymnastics Raise Eyebrows Before Playoffs – Again

Mark Stone

Getty Mark Stone, Vegas Golden Knights

The Vegas Golden Knights will be getting some key pieces back just in time for the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

In a press conference on April 20, just two days before the start of Vegas’ first-round series against the Dallas Stars, Golden Knights general manager Kelly McCrimmon announced that Mark Stone and Alex Pietrangelo had been cleared for full contact.

Stone, who lacerated his spleen in a Feb. 20 game against the Nashville Predators, missed the final 26 games of the Golden Knights’ regular season. He was cleared to practice on April 12, but spent the past week  practicing in a non-contact jersey. Stone was a full participant in the team’s April 20 practice, as was Pietrangelo, who had been out since April 2 while recovering from an appendectomy.

Stone’s injury landed him on Long-Term Injured Reserve (LTIR), allowing Vegas to exploit a loophole in the NHL’s Collective Bargaining Agreement – again. The league’s salary cap restrictions are lifted during the postseason, meaning that the Golden Knights can activate Stone – and his $9.5 million salary – for the Stanley Cup Playoffs without being penalized. It’s a loophole Vegas knows well, ironically because of Stone.

Golden Knights’ Salary Cap Circumvention Draws Criticism in Second Straight Season

Last season, Stone had a second back surgery in a 13-month window that landed him on LTIR in mid-January and held him out of the lineup for the final 26 games of the season, but he returned just in time for the team’s first-round series against the Winnipeg Jets. Stone went on to record 24 points in 22 postseason games to help lead the Golden Knights to their first Stanley Cup championship in franchise history.

Mark Stone

GettyMark Stone, Vegas Golden Knights

The Golden Knights’ liberal use of LTIR again this season gave them a creative way to gain competitive advantage at the trade deadline. With Stone on LTIR and his hefty salary off the books, Vegas was able to land three big trade targets in Anthony Mantha, Noah Hanifin and Tomáš Hertl – all with salary retention – as they sought to reach the playoffs for the second consecutive season.

Because this marks the second straight season the Golden Knights have placed Stone in LTIR and added pieces in his absence, only for him to return in time for the playoffs, the team often has been accused of skirting the league’s salary-cap rules. McCrimmon addressed this perception during his press conference on Saturday:

There has been a lot of speculation and a lot of insinuation about [Stone’s] injury. The NHL is 100 percent involved in any of these (LTIR) situations involving teams. Their chief medical director speaks to the surgeon, speaks to our medical team, speaks to our athletic therapist, has access to every document that is filed and every diagnostic test that is given. They have access to all of that information. That’s what keeps the system legitimate. They are the people that are fully involved in this. So, I don’t know if maybe the fans or the media understand the degree to which these injuries are scrutinized.

In an effort to dispel any further speculation surrounding Stone’s placement on LTIR, McCrimmon went on to specify that the injury in question was a Grade 3 laceration to Stone’s spleen.

“By the time we got later in the week and met with our doctors, in terms of the timeline that it was anticipated that he would miss, the doctor said it to me exactly like this,” McCrimmon explained, proceeding to raise his hand about a foot above the table he was sitting at during Saturday’s press conference. “He said, ‘Kelly, there’s a stack of literature this high saying that injury is going to take three to six months [to recover from].’”

McCrimmon then lowered his hand to about an inch above the table.

“There’s a stack of literature this high saying it could take less than that,’” he continued. “So that was the information that we had given to us at the time of Mark’s injury.”

Health of Golden Knights Roster Could Drastically Impact Matchup vs. Stars

The Golden Knights also announced that forwards Chandler Stephenson and William Carrier would return to practice as full participants Saturday. Stephenson had missed the final two games of the regular season with an undisclosed injury, while Carrier had missed 11 games with an upper-body injury dating back to March 25.

Mantha (undisclosed) remained in a non-contact jersey at Saturday’s practice, while Jonathan Marchessault and Ben Hutton took maintenance days.

The team has not yet confirmed whether any of the aforementioned players, including Stone, will be ready to go for Game 1 against Dallas on Monday. According to McCrimmon, the team will ” see how [Stone] responds with respect to his availability.”

The Athletic’s Jesse Granger reported that Stone skated on a line with Hertl and Stephenson during Saturday’s practice, further suggesting that the plan is for him to play on Monday.

According to DraftKings, Dallas is the favorite to win the first-round series (-140) against the Golden Knights. If Stone and the rest of Vegas’ previously injured players are able to play in Game 1, the Golden Knights’ lineup becomes a lot more dangerous. With 53 points in 56 games prior to his injury, Stone was on pace for a career season.

“Returning to health is going to be one of the big keys for our team,” McCrimmon said. “We’re going to be healthier going into the playoffs than we have been for a while.”

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