NEW YORK -- Yes, I still do think a deal will be reached sooner rather than later, and there will be a season. Let’s get that out of the way first.
For all the drama that played out this week, lost in the theatrics was this little fact: the NHL and NHLPA got much closer on an agreement.
Whether or not the emotion gets in the way of a deal, well, that I can’t predict. But purely from a framework basis, this deal is nearly there.
They have essentially agreed on revenue sharing among teams, the players’ pension issues and the make-whole provision.
That leaves three key issues unresolved:
1. CBA Term. The league wants a 10-year deal (with a mutual option after eight years); the union responded with eight years with an option after Year 6. To me this is a red herring. It’s not a deal breaker. Frankly, I think most players don’t really care about this one. One player even suggested to me Friday that this was more a Donald Fehr issue than a player issue. The reason the league needs to get 10 years is that otherwise it won’t shell out $300 million in make-whole money. For the owners to pay that money outside the system, they need to guarantee themselves more years at a true 50-50 split of hockey-related revenues. Obviously, for the first few years of the CBA, paying out $300 million means in reality it’s not 50-50 yet. On this issue, I predict the players will be willing to bend.
2. Contract term limits. The league proposes five-year limits (seven years if it’s your own player) while the players countered with eight years. Deputy commissioner Bill Daly said this was a hill they were willing to die on, that’s how important the owners feel about getting a five-year limit on contracts. The reasoning for that is long-term deals got out of control during the last CBA (that would be owners messing up their own system, by the way) and the league wants to rein in the kind of financial commitments that exist right now all over the league in long-term deals. But the players feel just as strongly that five-year limit is unacceptable, it removes way too much flexibility from the system, the players argue. "I guess Bill Daly’s hill will be the battleground," one NHL player told ESPN.com Friday. So where is the middle ground in the battleground? Can the league live with six years instead? Can the players live with that? This will be the final, toughest hurdle to a new CBA. But I think for a deal to get done, it’s the league and owners who have to move a little here on this one.
3. No compliance buyouts or caps on escrow in transition. Don Fehr brought up this up this week, a desire to either limit escrow early on in the new CBA and allow teams to buy out players but not have that payment count against the salary cap. The league vehemently opposes this because it’s money outside the system. As one league source said Friday, they’re already willing to shell out $300 million in "make-whole" outside the system, they’re not going to shell out more. Instead, the league believes that allowing teams to exceed the salary cap for the first 12 months of the CBA allows enough time for teams to get under the cap eventually and adjust to the new system. I’m not sure what Fehr’s angle is here. I mean, the whole point of make-whole is to alleviate the financial pressure the players will feel by going from 57 percent of HRR down to 50. Truth be told, some owners were furious when they found out the league offered $300 million this week. It’s a number every owner is comfortable with. Why Fehr needs other transition avenues on top of make-whole seems a bit of a reach to me.
The skinny: Commissioner Gary Bettman said the offer was off the table, but the reality is, if the players next week are willing to play ball with what the league proposed, that deal is still available. What the players have to figure out for themselves is whether waiting this out longer will help them get more. There’s no question the patience that Fehr has preached to his membership has paid off, the best example being the owners moving from $211 million to $300 million in make-whole. But at some point you have to know when you’ve played this out long enough. I believe that time has come. If I’m a player, I push hard to get back to the table next week and work with the league on its last offer. If the players do that, this lockout ends.