It’s complicated. Very complicated. And when all is said and done, it’s going to remain complicated, even if the Golden Knights win the Stanley Cup. As you read through this, and experience the rest of the Golden Knights’ 5th attempt to win the NHL’s greatest prize, remember that you don’t have to pick a side. You are allowed to have complex feelings about the entire situation. You can celebrate the great moments while also feeling a little dirty about them as well.
Ok, got it? Now, let’s get to talking about it.
On November 4th, the Golden Knights made the bold move of acquiring superstar Jack Eichel. The move was widely celebrated as a giant win for a team that has continued to throw caution to the wind and never stop going full steam ahead in their quest to win the Cup.
But, the rules didn’t, and still don’t, allow Vegas to bring Eichel onto this already strong team without other events taking place. When the Golden Knights added Eichel, their roster sat more than $10 million above the salary cap’s upper limit. Meaning, even though the Golden Knights now have Eichel on their team, he isn’t allowed to hit the ice until subsequent moves are made to satisfy the league’s salary requirements.
Most assumed they’d trade a few players away, but always lurking in the background was this idea taking advantage of the NHL’s convoluted long-term injured reserve rules. A year after the Tampa Bay Lightning hoisted the Cup with a roster $18 million north of the salary cap, the option always seemed a possibility for Vegas as well.
However, it’s not that easy. For it to work, a player has to be injured for the remainder of the regular season and then be healthy enough to play right when the playoffs begin. It would take a stroke of perfectly timed luck that would make hitting the PowerBall seem like a piece of cake. Or… it would take some slightly sinister, slightly shady, slightly unsportsmanlike behavior from a small group of people to caress a tricky situation into the perfect storm.
This brings us to the situation that may be unfolding currently for the Golden Knights. Eichel appears ready to return to action fairly soon, Alec Martinez as well, and that $10 million cap question must be answered, possibly as soon as Wednesday. And, voila, despite playing in the All Star Game and shooting pucks on the Bellagio Fountain just days before, Mark Stone is scratched moments before the second night of a back-to-back in Calgary, and league sources are speculating that he might be the solution to Vegas’ $10 million problem. Stone would take Eichel’s place on LTIR, sit out for the rest of the season, and rejoin the Golden Knights in the playoffs when there is no longer a salary cap.
If that is indeed the case, here’s the timeline we’re looking at.
October 14th, Stone leaves a game against the Kings with what appears to be a serious injury. Five days later, Pete DeBoer says he avoided surgery and is “somewhere between day-to-day and week-to-week.” Less than a month after the injury that was later confirmed by The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun to be in his back, Stone returned to practice. 30 days after the injury, Stone played in a game at T-Mobile Arena.
Following that game, he said this.
With the medical staff, myself, the physical training staff we’ve done a good job getting it solved, getting my body into a position to feel comfortable on the ice, which I hadn’t for maybe a while and I kind of fooled myself into thinking I felt great… I feel good going forward that I’m going to get through the season and I feel as strong as ever. -Stone
36 days and 16 consecutive game appearances later, on December 19th, Stone was scratched from a game against the Islanders. He played in the next game on the 21st, but for just 11 shifts and 7:47, his lowest output of the season. This time it was described that he “tweaked something” and it “wasn’t worth pushing it with him with the (Christmas) break coming up.”
He went on to miss the next four games while participating in practice off-and-on sometimes wearing a no-contact jersey. He’d return to play on January 6th and play four straight games before being placed in COVID protocols. That forced Stone out of a pair of games before he returned to action on January 25th. He played all four games, competed in the All Star Game and Skills Competition before being ruled out yesterday.
One thing is very clear, Mark Stone has been battling through an injury. There’s nothing made up or contrived about it.
But the timing Stone going from a nagging injury that never kept him out for more than a few weeks to requiring exactly an 11-week stint on LTIR at nearly the exact moment Eichel is ready to return seems awfully convenient.
Note: It has not been confirmed at this time that Stone is headed for LTIR or is out for the season. Nor has it even been confirmed that he will miss the next game. But when a veteran reporter like Frank Seravalli speculates that it could be coming, we have to consider it a strong possibility.
So, enough with facts, let’s get into the theoretical and philosophical aspects of it all.
If it’s all legitimate, which it very well may be, the sheer luck of the timing would have to be absolutely astounding.
Stone gets hurt. Recovers and feels better than he ever has before. It’s reaggravated, but only bad enough to keep him out for a few games. He plays a bunch more games, participates in the All Star Game, Skills Competition, and one game after the break, and then boom, can’t play again the rest of the regular season. And it just so happens to time up four days after Jack Eichel was cleared for contact and his return seems imminent.
There’s a part of me that can buy that coincidence, but it’s the final piece of this situation that has me majorly skeptical.
For Stone’s absence to do any good for the Golden Knights, he’d have to return in the postseason, but not a second before the postseason.
The NHL’s rules allow a player to be placed on LTIR when he’s hurt, but he cannot be on LTIR when he’s not. So, this injury must last exactly 78 days and not a day less, because the trade deadline will have passed and VGK will not be able to get back under the salary cap. An injury that doctors could not put a timeline on before, was thought to have completely healed in four weeks, then popped back up multiple times, now has a very specific, definite, and perfect timeline of exactly 78 days. Maybe I’m just a cynic, but that seems way too much of a coincidence to be reality for me.
But, pulling it off might not be that hard. All it takes is the opinion of one man, Mark Stone. If he says he can’t play, then he can’t play. There’s not a doctor in the world that can dispute it and thus no matter how hard the league pushes, no one can tell him when his back is hurt and when it is healed.
This is where it becomes philosophically difficult.
On one hand, the rules clearly allow for this situation to be taken advantage of, and in fact, a team literally did it last year and won the Cup in large part because of it. So, why should anyone feel bad if their team uses the same rule to do it themselves? Put yourself in Stone’s shoes, or Kelly McCrimmon’s shoes, would you sign off on this? I know I would.
But, on the other hand, it clearly goes against the spirit of the rule and thus stands firmly in the way of the Stanley Cup being decided using a fair and balanced competition. That does not sit well with me.
Unless you believe the incredibly coincidental timing (which I’m not sure I can bring myself to do), it would require mistruths to be told about a player’s health, and multiple parties would have to be in on it. From Stone himself to the VGK front office and maybe even as far as to a team physician.
This would be very out of character for the player and person we’ve come to know as the captain of the Golden Knights. So in that sense, it’s almost unbelievable to consider Stone doing this. But at the same time, it undoubtedly gives the team he captains a better chance to win. Would his competitive drive allow him to go this far? Only he knows.
Also, if you want to get really sinister, remember that the trade for Eichel was made AFTER the initial Stone injury, which means this plan to have him miss 11 weeks right when Eichel is ready to play could go all the way back to moments after the injury happened. For lack of a better term, the whole thing just stinks.
Technically, it’s not cheating. Technically, it’s using a foolish rule to your advantage by massaging timelines on a complicated injury. Technically, it’s the league’s fault for seeing this happen a year ago and not making a change to the rulebook to prevent it from happening again. So technically, this is a brilliant tactic by the Golden Knights that will unequivocally raise their chances to win the Cup.
But also, it’s not how a true sportsman would act. It’s a shortcut. It’s a crutch. It’s like taking performance-enhancing drugs if you were guaranteed you wouldn’t get caught.
So, as I pointed out at the top of this article, it’s complicated. I don’t know whether I support the plan or not because I completely understand both sides. And I’m certainly not here to tell you what to believe either. But I get why people would be for it and I get why people would be against it, and whether fans, players, media, the VGK organization, or The Creator himself want to admit it, it will mar this playoff run.
That is, of course, if they actually go this direction, which only a select few know if they will.