When Joffrey Lupul made comments regarding his failed medical exam, seemingly implying that he was actually good to go should the Toronto Maple Leafs want to use him, questions arose about the next steps, the most intriguing of which was the possibility for Lupul himself to ask for a second opinion.
However, in the days that followed, Lupul’s opportunity to seek a second medical opinion came and passed, and the Maple Leafs winger, who hasn’t played since Feb. 6, 2016, took to Twitter to explain.
“I responded earlier this week to some negative comments on Instagram,” Lupul wrote. “It was an inappropriate response, and I deleted it, but I take full responsibility. It’s been extremely tough not being able to play over the past 1.5 years. I will not be seeking a second opinion, but I hope one day to be able to get back on the ice. I apologize to the media, fans, Leafs organization, and most of all my teammates for this unneeded distraction.”
Case closed, right? Well, not quite. As it turns out, the NHL is interested in getting to the bottom things when it comes to Lupul’s long-term injured reserve status. As per multiple reports, including those from The Athletic’s James Mirtle and Sportsnet’s John Shannon, it appears the NHL is requesting that Lupul be evaluated by another doctor before going ahead and allowing the Maple Leafs to get cap relief by placing the 33-year-old on LTIR.
“The National Hockey League has that right to pursue a second opinion and that’s exactly what they’re engaging in right now,” TSN’s Darren Dreger explained Thursday. “The reasoning behind it is because of the comment Lupul made on social media…The (NHL) wants to make sure that the medical evaluation from the Toronto Maple Leafs is 100 percent above board. There is this perception, right or wrong, that the Toronto Maple Leafs do work above the law in certain aspects.”
Dreger continued by adding that he “wouldn’t be surprised” if there was also a push for an investigation from other teams in the league. But don’t go thinking this is the NHL or the rest of the league singling out Toronto and Lupul, because, according to Mirtle, the league has its eyes on the Chicago Blackhawks and Marian Hossa, too.
Shortly after last season closed, Chicago announced Hossa would miss the entirety of the 2017-18 campaign with a skin disorder that rendered him unable to play. Statements were released by Hossa, the Blackhawks and Chicago’s team physician, Dr. Michael Terry, regarding the ailment, but there remained suspicion that the Blackhawks were looking for a way to get much-needed cap relief. It also raised eyebrows that Hossa was stepping away at this point in his contract, when his salary was set to dip to $1 million after he had previously been paid as much as $7.9 million and $4 million just last season.
Now, no one knows exactly what the result would be should the NHL determine either the Maple Leafs or Blackhawks have attempted to circumvent the salary cap, but it seems safe to assume that one punishment would be the inability to receive the LTIR space regardless of either player’s willingness or ability to suit up this season. That’s where things get tricky.
For the Maple Leafs, being saddled with Lupul’s $5.25-million cap hit might seem like a backbreaker, but, as it turns out, it doesn’t actually put Toronto in a complete bind. Because Nathan Horton, whose career is all but over due to a back injury, will never suit up again, he’s still a candidate for LTIR. And with Horton out of the picture, the Maple Leafs actually have a small buffer — somewhere in the range of $700,000, per CapFriendly’s Armchair GM — from the salary limit.
And if that’s the case and the Maple Leafs want to use Lupul, great. He can suit up tomorrow. If they don’t want to, though, Toronto will have some options. The most difficult would be trading Lupul to another organization willing to take on a hefty cap hit for a player who hasn’t suited up in 20 months. What would be much easier, however, is placing Lupul on waivers and subsequently sending him to the AHL. Burying his salary in the minors would open an extra $1 million-plus for the Maple Leafs and, if he was outstanding, could even open up the option of finding a trade partner. Lupul is in the final season of his contract, too, so it’s not as if there’s long-term concerns when the likes of Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Mitch Marner are due new deals.
All of this is to say that Toronto actually isn’t in the worst spot should Lupul’s comments result in his contract counting against the cap. The same, however, can’t be said for the Blackhawks’ situation with Hossa.
The first issue in Chicago is the salary cap. At present, Chicago is projected to be $35,000 over the upper limit with Hossa’s salary included, and the overage may seem to be a paltry sum, it would actually be fairly difficult for the Blackhawks to assemble their best roster if they have to keep money in mind. The one saving grace, unfortunately, might be that Michal Rozsival failed his medical in camp and is expected to be sidelined for a significant amount of time with an upper-body injury. His placement on LTIR could open up upwards of $600,000 for Chicago to work with. Additionally, Chicago can make some cuts — goaltender J-F Berube among them — that can save some money. Cap compliance is one thing, though. Roster assembly with those cap constraints is another.
Currently, the Blackhawks are lacking on the blueline and bringing up Jan Rutta and Gustav Forsling, the expected third pairing, would have Chicago back over the cap again by close to $500,000. Chicago could get under the cap by using defenders with lower salaries, say Ville Pokka and Erik Gustafsson, but, at that point, cap compliance comes at the cost of icing a lineup that can compete in the Central Division. And this is without mentioning the forward group. Even if Vinnie Hinostroza, Laurent Dauphin, Alex DeBrincat or John Hayden were to show enough to make the Blackhawks out of camp, they may be unable to start the season or suit up in Chicago at all because of limited cap space. Hayden, for instance, counts against the cap for $925,000, while DeBrincat, Dauphin and Hinostroza fall in the high to low $700,000-range, in that order. Really, no matter what the Blackhawks do, the roster shuffling is going to be headache if Hossa’s cap hit counts.
For now, though, it’s a waiting game, but one with a time limit. Mirtle explained examinations into both cases are set to be complete before the start of the campaign, which, at this point, is less than two weeks away. And don’t be surprised if the Maple Leafs and Blackhawks are holding their breath — to varying degrees — until a final ruling comes down.
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