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Thursday, January 3, 2013
Debate: Will cap, contract term break deal?

By Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun

BURNSIDE: Well, my friend, our early Thursday morning finish has now bled seamlessly into a Thursday afternoon of more discussions between the NHL and NHLPA. Now if only the talks themselves would go as seamlessly. As we discussed in great detail leading up to Wednesday’s midnight deadline to disclaim interest, that was a significant element of leverage for the NHLPA. The assumption was that if the players didn’t disclaim interest it would suggest a deal was close, if not imminent. No disclaimer was filed but, as of Thursday afternoon, there has been a lot of discussion about how quickly the players would vote to re-engage the threat of a disclaimer of interest to dissolve the union. I talked to one player who wondered, if that was the case, why didn't the union simply file the disclaimer Wednesday night. Certainly it makes sense for the players’ association to try and re-arm themselves with the leverage that a disclaimer of interest represents, but there’s also a body of thought that if they didn’t use it Wednesday, maybe they don’t have any intention of using it at all. Still, I think you believe Thursday continues to be a pivotal day in the life of this lockout.

LEBRUN: It is the wise move for the players to re-vote on the disclaimer, and it would surprise me if they didn’t get that process going by Thursday night. The players need to keep the league’s feet to the fire with the disclaimer hammer. Either way, I get the sense Thursday is a make-or-break day in this long and sordid process. Either the two sides find a way, with the help of mediation, of bridging the gap on the remaining big issues, or this thing blows up and leaves the season very much in doubt with next week’s Jan. 11 NHL-imposed deadline to get a deal done in order to have a Jan. 19 puck drop.

There are several issues still separating the two sides, but I think the Big Three are the Year 2 salary cap, the contract length on player contracts and the players’ pension. I think they’ll eventually figure out the pension issue, but that leaves the other two that seem absolutely frozen in a stalemate. The league is persistent in wanting the Year 2 cap to be $60 million. The NHLPA moved down to $65 million from its original position of $70 million, but the players I’ve spoken with say they won’t move further down. The league’s concern is that it wants to keep the cap floor at $44 million. For the players, this is about having flexibility in the system. At $60 million, the players feel the system will be too constrictive. As for the contract length issue, the players, I’m told, are willing to cap deals at seven years, but another source said the players are only willing to go down to eight years. The league will only do six years. Are these two issues enough to cancel a season or does it get done, Scotty?

BURNSIDE: Pierre, wouldn’t that be a terrible legacy for both sides if they lost a second season in the past eight years over $5 million worth of cap room and whether contracts are capped at six, seven or eight years (plus an additional year for signing your own players)? Talk about throwing the baby out with the bathwater. There is definitely an advanced stage of nervousness through the past 24 hours, and you have to know there is significant pressure on both NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and his counterpart Donald Fehr to not let this slip away. I was a bit surprised, for instance, when you reported that the owners had agreed to a second compliance buyout before the start of the 2013-14 season as a way of helping teams get under the salary cap. The buyout money would still come out of the players’ share of hockey-related revenues, but it’s something given that a few weeks ago the owners were dead set against any kind of transition elements such as buyouts.

OK, give it to me straight, how does this play out over the next 24 hours? I said yesterday I believed the enormous stakes and the equally enormous pressure to not let this go into the abyss (again) would ultimately take us to a deal. I’m still in that camp.

LEBRUN: On the buyouts, I think the NHL decided it was willing to go to two instead of one per team as a way to help sell its case that the Year 2 cap can stay at $60 million. Having teams able to buy out two players instead of one player next summer, neither counting against the cap, will further help those teams that need to squeeze the payroll under the $60 million limit. But whether this issue and all the other remaining issues get resolved over the next 24 to 48 hours is impossible to predict. I do sense some aggravation from the players I spoke with Thursday. One player told me this thing is in a fragile state, despite the fact the two sides have gotten so close. It would not surprise me at all if we have one last blow-up and we have to come back here next week ahead of the Jan. 11 deadline for the final push in talks. But I sure hope not. Enough is enough. Get it done today.