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Death, Taxes, And Mark Stone Coming Off Long-Term IR For The Playoffs

DALLAS, TEXAS - APRIL 22: Mark Stone #61 of the Vegas Golden Knights is defended by Matt Duchene #95 of the Dallas Stars during the third period in Game One of the First Round of the 2024 Stanley Cup Playoffs at the American Airlines Center on April 22, 2024 in Dallas, Texas. (Photo by Sam Hodde/Getty Images)
Sam Hodde/Getty Images

You can set your watch to it:

  • Feb. 14, 2022: Mark Stone was placed on long-term injured reserve with a back injury.
  • April 12, 2022: Stone was activated from LTIR with nine games left—the Golden Knights were scuffling for a playoff spot—which served to disguise the start of a pattern.
  • Feb. 20, 2023: Stone was placed on LTIR after back surgery.
  • April 18, 2023: Stone was activated from LTIR in time for Game 1 of the first round.
  • March 4, 2024: Stone was placed on LTIR with a lacerated spleen.
  • April 22, 2024: Stone was activated from LTIR in time for Game 1 of the first round.

The dates that matter most to the Golden Knights and their cap sheet occurred between each of these paired transactions: the trade deadline. Because the salaries of players on LTIR don't count toward the cap, and because playoff rosters are uncapped, Vegas has been able to bulk up at the deadline without worrying about cost. Without Stone's $9.5 million cap hit, the Knights were able to add Ivan Barbashev last year, and Tomas Hertl, Noah Hanifin and Anthony Mantha this spring.

And now the playoffs are here and Stone needed just 1:23 to get Vegas on the board.

To be clear, Stone isn't why Vegas took Game 1 in Dallas, 4-3. The Stars nearly doubled up the Golden Knights on shots on goal, but Vegas made their chances count and made things happen on the power play. But Stone's 17:09 of ice time—second among VGK forwards—in his first game in two months, and first alongside new center Hertl, certainly didn't hurt. A load-bearing column of last year's Cup run, Stone is a two-way machine and a dressing-room leader and the Knights aren't complete without him. And he makes a lot of people, very very angry.

The conspiracy theories range from the plausible (a ready-to-play Stone is held out for the cap benefits) to the silly (he's not actually injured). To be clear, I do not think Mark Stone had back surgery for the fun of it. But if a CBA loophole allows for it, Vegas would be remiss in not taking advantage to ice the best roster it can this time of year. (We should probably also have the conversation about finding an incentive for teams not to rush back injured guys until they're 100 percent anyway.)

Vegas is hardly alone in this—half the league finished the regular season "over the cap" when LTIR is factored in—and hardly the most egregious—they're about $6 million over; Tampa was $18 million over when they won the Cup in 2021. But the Knights do have a knack for it, and have the savvy and good timing to optimize their losses, and, yes, a roster good enough to make the playoffs even without their captain suiting up down the stretch.

In response to The Athletic, the NHL said it would not address questions about LTIR usage "unless the league had determined that some rule had been broken," which it clearly hasn't been. This was collectively bargained, and until and unless it's collectively bargained out, these are the rules that everyone's playing under. (I am very curious to see if it will be addressed in the next negotiations; I suspect the PA is not unhappy about anything that results in more money going into payroll.) Complaining about it does nothing but make the complainer look envious. The Stars have not complained, nor should you expect them to, but if they're bothered by Vegas's cap shenanigans, they've got a solution available to them: Simply beat the eight-seed. Even if that eight-seed has Mark Stone, because it is mid-April.

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