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Wednesday, March 14, 2012
CBA elephant still in the room

By Scott Burnside
ESPN.com

BOCA RATON, Fla. -- As the NHL GMs exited the meeting room Wednesday after being given an update on the state of collective bargaining, there was a zombie-like kind of mantra to the proceedings.

Business as usual.

Business as usual.

"It's business as usual. There's a collective bargaining agreement in place and it expires on Sept. 15, so it's business as usual," Calgary Flames GM Jay Feaster said.

"The message for us is, business as usual. Sooner or later there will be a deal made and we'll play hockey," offered Philadelphia Flyers GM Paul Holmgren.

With the end of the current collective bargaining agreement exactly six months away, this might well be the calm before the storm.

Formal negotiations have not begun nor are they likely to start anytime soon. But business as usual?

Regardless of the lockstep approach to describing the landscape that confronts them in this coming offseason, this could hardly be any less usual for the league's 30 general managers.

The NHL's Premiere Games series that has seen NHL teams open the regular season in European cities since 2007 has been scrapped for next fall.

In late June, the teams will be given the salary cap for the 2012-13 season. Thanks to strong Canadian markets, a strong Canadian dollar, compelling playoff races and an enhanced profile around the United States, league revenues continue to rise. And that means the salary cap will also go up. Estimates from a variety of sources suggest the cap could go to $69 million or $70 million, up significantly from the current salary cap of $64.3 million.

The first salary cap coming out of the lockout that preceded the ratification of the current collective bargaining agreement was $39 million.

The problem for GMs, especially those like Holmgren or Stan Bowman in Chicago or Ken Holland in Detroit, whose teams regularly spend to the cap, is that the widespread belief is that by the time the new collective bargaining agreement is hammered out, the cap will be significantly lower as the league will be pressing to reduce the share of hockey-related revenues given to the players.

How much lower?

Who knows?

But GMs will face the specter of needing to acquire players in free agency and sign current players and build a team without the benefit of knowing what the landscape will look like vis a vis the cap.

Talk about working with a blindfold. So if there was a buzzword that accompanied the oft-repeated "business as usual," it was flexibility, as in GMs talked about the need to avoid boxing themselves in financially.

"I think trying to keep flexibility is important. Because we're not quite sure what the future holds. That's probably something I know I'm going to focus on more," Bowman said.

"I'm not very good at looking into a crystal ball," added Vancouver GM Mike Gillis, another general manager who regularly spends close to the cap. "But we're going to operate the team the way we have the last four years. If there are players available that we think can help us be more competitive, we're going to try to attract them to Vancouver. And then, what comes our way later, we'll just deal with it the best we can."

One element that might further cloud the issue for the general managers is that they might not have the same tools to deal with a new salary cap that they did coming out of the lockout. When that agreement was reached in the summer of 2005, clubs were given a one-time amnesty to buy out one contract that wouldn't count against the salary cap.

Various sources told ESPN.com they don't believe such a parachute will be extended to the GMs when this deal is completed. Certainly, GMs said quietly they aren't counting on being able to simply dump a contract to get under whatever the new salary cap might look like.

When asked about such a mechanism and whether it might be made available to teams, commissioner Gary Bettman politely declined to engage in any speculation.

"We're not discussing specifics of what may or may not be in the collective bargaining agreement. But that's a nice question. I'm not going there, guys. There's no reason to do that. I certainly am not going to be discussing issues I haven't discussed with the union. Why would I want to do that?" he said. "I know it would make your life more interesting, and I say that with the upmost affection and respect, but there's no reason to do that. OK? And I understand the fixation on collective bargaining, but we're not even bargaining, so let's focus on something else, OK?"

If there is anxiety outside the game that the two sides appear in no hurry to get together, that anxiety appears not to be shared by the NHL's commissioner or by his counterpart Donald Fehr, the new executive director of the National Hockey League Players' Association.

"The fact is, when the union is ready to negotiate, we'll be ready to sit down. I'm not particularly concerned about the time line," Bettman said. "There's plenty of time. Listen, we have new union leadership with a lot of new personnel, and my guess is they still have a lot of work to do, and I'm OK with that. When they're ready, we'll be ready."

"My own view on collective bargaining is it's better to not have to focus on it 'til you have to focus on it," Bettman said.

While time might not be of the essence in getting a new deal done, make no mistake, it's anything but business as usual as the league heads into an uncertain labor future.