The Florida Panthers put one of their best players on long-term injured reserve (LTIR) on Sunday morning but that does not mean star defenseman Aaron Ekblad is injured in the long term.
So, why put him on LTIR?
It’s all about the salary cap — and keeping their current team intact.
With the NHL Trade Deadline on Monday, the Panthers really needed Ekblad’s salary cap space.
By going on LTIR, Ekblad’s entire $7.5 million annual average salary comes off Florida’s cap allowing the team a lot more flexibility.
The Panthers are now above the NHL’s $82.5 million salary cap ceiling.
The price? Ekblad won’t be in their lineup for a while.
The Panthers certainly did not want to go this route, would much rather see Ekblad continue his fantastic season and build on that.
But after sustaining a right leg injury Friday night in Anaheim, Ekblad was going to miss some time as it was.
How much is still not known, at least not publicly.
The Panthers hint he may be back in a couple of weeks although it it will probably be longer.
With only five weeks left in the regular season, if Ekblad was going to miss a minimum of three-to-four weeks, what’s the difference if he’s out one more week?
The cap space created certainly helps this team more in the long run than a couple of games with Ekblad — who can practice with the team whenever medically cleared — in the lineup. Ekblad, of course, could be out longer.
“We’ll know more in the next couple days,’’ coach Andrew Brunette said Sunday afternoon. “He is in good spirits. It is nothing overly concerning here long-term, we just want to make sure we get him healthy down the stretch.”
League rules state that a player who goes on LTIR must miss 10 games and 24 days.
Ekblad may be ready to come back around that time, but because the Florida Panthers are using his cap hit to stay compliant, he will not be returning to the lineup until the playoffs.
When the playoffs start, there is no more salary cap in the NHL.
Florida can slide Ekbad right back into the lineup and — poof! — all is well.
If this sounds familiar, well, it should.
Last year, the Tampa Bay Lightning had Nikita Kucherov on LTIR throughout the 2021 season after he had preseason hip surgery; before the deadline, captain Steven Stamkos went on LTIR as well.
The Lightning were able to stay cap compliant throughout the season and add the likes of David Savard at the deadline.
As the Panthers know all too well, Kucherov and Stamkos were both healthy and ready to go for Game 1 of their first-round playoff series.
Tampa Bay took a lot of heat from fans who felt it was circumventing the cap, but the Lightning broke no rules.
Both players were hurt, and while they probably were healthy enough to come back and play before the postseason, they were left on LTIR because Tampa Bay was safely in the playoffs and needed the cap space to keep their team together as well as add some pieces.
The Panthers are now in the same boat.
Florida, entrenched in a playoff spot, would have needed to make some roster moves and move some cap money to bring in Philadelphia captain Claude Giroux.
Then, Ekblad got hurt.
Without Ekblad on LTIR, the Panthers would have been over the salary cap upon acquiring Giroux on Saturday afternoon.
The Panthers likely would have had to trade away a player they did not want to part with.
Now they do not.
In fact, with Ekblad’s money off the cap, the Panthers went out and added a player, trading for Buffalo defenseman Robert Hagg on Sunday.
When Chiarot is placed on the official roster, Florida will add his $1.75 million cap hit (Montreal retained half of it) but now has plenty of room to do so. The Panthers are at the maximum 23-man roster (which goes away after the deadline) but need to clear a spot for Chiarot.
Speaking of room, the Panthers — as long as they make roster space — can continue to make moves before today’s NHL Trade Deadline.
Florida, once Chiarot’s money is added in, is still about $3.7 million under the cap according to CapFriendly.com.
That’s not a bad chunk of space to work with.
The Panthers could end up helping other teams make moves by retaining cap space and perhaps get draft picks in return. They could also add another depth player to their arsenal — but only if a roster spot is cleared in some way.
Regardless of how Zito maximizes this new-found cap stash, the Panthers are now not expected to unload any of their own players to become cap compliant.
They are good in that regard.
The NHL Trade Deadline comes at 3 p.m. today.
Bill Zito may not be done dealing yet.