Scott Burnside and Craig Custance debate whether the NHL's new offer is enough to get the players back on the ice.
BURNSIDE: Greetings and top of the season to you, my friend. Well, for all of us who have been waiting and hoping for a happy New Year vis-à-vis the NHL lockout, things are looking a lot more positive than they were a day or two ago. As our good friend and colleague Pierre LeBrun reported Friday morning, the NHL has presented the NHLPA with a new offer that moves off key issues like a cap on salary lengths and transitional payments. The league has agreed to move off a five-year cap on all contracts, the so-called hill on which the league would die, offering a six-year cap with an additional year for teams re-signing their own players. That has been a huge deal for the players.
At the risk of tooting our own horns, the new NHL offer bears a striking resemblance to the framework of a possible deal provided to us by an NHL governor a couple of weeks ago. Top players that we canvassed reacted favorably to such a framework, suggesting at the very minimum it was the kind of deal that could/should be taken to the membership for a vote. There are obviously miles to go before we sleep (with all due respect to Robert Frost), but given the backdrop of a rapidly closing window of time in which to get a deal done, one has to view this as a significant development, or am I simply seeing what I want to see at this point in the process?
CUSTANCE: I've tried to develop a healthy dose of pessimism with each offer because it seems like the response from the other side is never as cheery as it is from those of us so eager for this all to end. But you're right, there are some important movements made in this offer. I've never gotten the sense from players I've spoken with that the length of the CBA is nearly as important as the limits put on standard player contracts. Considering the talk we heard in New York, the change to a six-year max on signing free agents from other teams is significant. And you can't overlook the variance, which the NHL has now moved to 10 percent. That's important.
You're right, it looks closer to the offer you floated, and every player I spoke with about that offer seemed to think it was at least worth a vote. We'll see if they still feel that way when it's coming from the NHL. I'll be interested to see the NHLPA's response since Donald Fehr's strategy has been consistent from the outset: Keep waiting. His patience has been rewarded with improved offers as this lockout has extended, but the players want to play and something in this framework may be good enough to do it. I also found it interesting that compliance buyouts are part of this one. Any teams you see jumping on this?
BURNSIDE: I wonder if the buyout becomes the one area with which the league might be willing to tinker. We know some players are worried about the drop-off in salary cap from the first year, which will remain at $70.3 million (prorated over the balance of the 2012-13 season), to $60 million in Year 2 of the deal. Would the league agree to have one-time buyouts not count against hockey-related revenues as a way of keeping that reduced cap in effect even though players won’t like the potential impact on escrow? But to your point, I can’t help but think there will be a bevy of buyouts as teams try and prepare for a significant reduction in the cap, with guys like Wade Redden and Scott Gomez at the top of the list. But what about Ilya Bryzgalov, the "star" of the free-agent crop a year ago whose play and personality left more than a few in Philadelphia cold? And if GM Paul Holmgren did pull the pin on Mr. Humongous Big Universe, what would Plan B look like with Sergei Bobrovsky in Columbus? See, there you go Craig, you’ve got me thinking real hockey and real hockey decisions. Curse you.
To your point about Fehr, though; it goes without saying that this is the defining moment for him. This isn’t necessarily a take-it-or-leave-it offer from the league, but I don’t think he can start adding things to the equation the way he did in New York when he attached the demands for transitional elements. He has done a masterful job of pushing the envelope even as the league has gone where it said it wouldn’t go, but my gut tells me the envelope is pretty much at its limit. Does he think so? Does the membership think so? I guess we’ll find out in the next few days. What does your gut tell you?
CUSTANCE: Well, my gut said we'd be playing hockey on Jan. 1 when all this started, so my gut hasn't been entirely dependable. But I continue to be optimistic that we'll see hockey in January. You bring up a great point on transition rules. When I checked with one player this morning to get reaction to the NHL's offer, his immediate response was to ask what the salary cap was next year. That's a real concern for the players. If it ends up being $60 million, the players are going to get nailed with a healthy escrow hit, which some view as a rollback. So that could end up being the next focal point of negotiations. At the same time, doesn't the payoff that comes with playing as soon as possible help mitigate any losses in escrow next season? There's a small window to get things done before the NHLPA's deadline to file a disclaimer of interest. Five days and counting. You think that helps light a fire under negotiations to get this thing done?
BURNSIDE: Well if there’s not a burning sensation under both the players and the owners at this stage of the proceedings, something is terribly wrong. But the fact that the players voted so overwhelmingly to give the NHLPA’s executive committee the power to file a disclaimer of interest (706 to 22 according to LeBrun) -- thereby dissolving the union and setting the stage for multiple antitrust lawsuits in the United States -- added even more urgency to the dynamic. Neither side knows exactly how a legal challenge by the union and counterchallenge by the league already in place would turn out, but the safe bet from experts is that we would be entering a whole new arena in terms of ugliness. Certainly we saw the NBA and NFL settle labor disputes with the threat of decertification as a backdrop. Not sure if it was the threat of the disclaimer or merely a look at the calendar that brought us to this point in the NHL lockout, but in some ways it’s a moot point. The reality is that the league has started the machinery on what most if not all observers believe is the final act in this tawdry little play.
I have remained optimistic that at some point common sense will enter the picture and we’ll see NHL hockey this season. No reason the two sides shouldn’t be back on the ice by mid-January. Of course, there’s no reason we’re having this discussion in the final days of 2012 either, so there you have it. OK, best guess on when and how the league gets going? Or does it?
CUSTANCE: I'll revise my prediction to a Jan. 16 start of the season, with a 50-game season. That would allow us the possibility of an exciting 50 goals in 50 games chase by Steven Stamkos or someone else, which is the kind of excitement the league will need to attract sports fans turned off by another lockout. Plus, I like round numbers. But they'd have to move fast to get there. The players will have a conference call at 3 p.m. ET today to mull things over and debate the details of this offer, but it has to be close. If there's some wiggle room on transition rules and the salary cap next season, I'm even more optimistic. Was told by a source last week that some of the smaller things are all but agreed upon -- like a third-party appeal process for supplemental discipline and moving the start of free agency to later in July. This offer seems to address some of the bigger issues. Now we wait and see if it's enough.