Next efforts may focus on protecting turf

It has been two weeks since the National Hockey League canceled the 2005 All-Star Game. Since then, one question has been resonating across the league: When will the season suffer the same fate?

It depends on the offer.

Both the NHL and the NHL Players' Association are expected to make at least one more proposal before the season is canceled, sources close to both players and owners tell ESPN.com.

But instead of meaningful compromises, those same sources say the offers will reinforce the polarized positions and will be used as ammunition when the dispute proceeds to what seems to be the inevitable next step -- the declaring of a legal impasse by owners, likely next fall, and an attempt to unilaterally impose a hard salary cap. The move would force players to either report to their teams or strike, which would create the possibility for owners to use replacement players. In turn, the players' association may block the declaration of an impasse by claiming the owners haven't bargained in good faith.

However, if there are legitimate concessions in either side's proposal, the timing becomes paramount.

The league is currently allowing owners to schedule their buildings on a rolling 45-day basis, which was increased from 30-day increments Oct. 19. But NHL executive vice president and chief legal officer Bill Daly said the 45-day period is not a restrictive timeframe.

"It is certainly possible that if we had a deal tomorrow, for instance, we could be playing within 45 days," Daly said. "The 45-day roll-out period is not an automatic cancellation window."

League officials continue to insist there isn't a drop-dead date and one hasn't been discussed.

The 103-day lockout of 1994-95 was resolved Jan. 11, in time to implement a 48-game season that began Jan. 20. Supposing one month of negotiating would be needed to reach an agreement, then negotiations must be under way and on the right track by mid-December in order to save a portion of the season.

"I think Dec. 15, there would have to be a deal in place to play," said one NHL general manager who asked not to be identified for fear of financial reprisals as outlined in NHL by-law 17.17, which prohibits comments pertaining to the CBA.

Another source with significant ties to both the players' association and ownership expects that if a deal isn't in place by the first week of January the owners will gather shortly thereafter and collectively cancel the season. He added that if owners ultimately want to declare an impasse, "there's got to be something on the table that's better than it is now."

As of now, an owners' meeting is not scheduled.

"I really don't know what to make of their plans or their timetable," NHLPA senior director Ted Saskin said Monday. "Their entire strategy through the lockout I don't fully understand, so from my perspective it's difficult to say what they might do or when they might do it."

The owners introduced what the players' association described as a one-page outline of a hard salary cap last October. The players' counteroffer included revenue sharing, a luxury tax and a one-time five-percent rollback in salaries, as well as additional entry-level salary limits. Both sides rejected the other's proposal.

That exchange was followed up on July 21 by a series of six proposals from the league, all of which tied player salaries to revenues.

Possibly undermining the negotiation process is Forbes magazine's recent report that the league has grossly exaggerated its losses, a long-held assertion of the players' association and a lynchpin in their argument against a salary cap. The report, which did not have access to teams' financial records, estimated the league's losses at $219 million over the past two seasons, less than half of what the league claims. The NHL and individual owners immediately denounced the story.

Meanwhile, the NHL stands by its claim of $497 million in losses during the past two seasons and the results of the Levitt Report, a league-commissioned audit of the 2002-03 season by Arthur Levitt, former chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, that found player salaries accounted for 75 percent of team revenues and that 19 of 30 teams suffered losses. The league has denied access to teams' financial records to the players' association and outside parties, other than Levitt.

One former Western Conference general manager said he felt the Forbes story might prod the owners into moving toward reaching a settlement.

"That'll stir the pot a little bit," he said. "This really puts a nail to ownership all of a sudden."

A source familiar with the NHLPA and its bargaining process says the players' association might tweak its latest proposal, which was presented Sept. 9 and contained a more stringent luxury tax, before the season is canceled.

"I've said we're not going to stand on ceremony. We're going to work to think of ways to bridge the gap," said Saskin, who would not confirm the formulation of a new proposal or the timetable of one.

In a meeting two weeks ago, the Players' Association addressed a groundswell of frustration from players angry the two sides have not met in more than two months. However, it is a factor that might play into a new proposal being presented from the players' side.

Regardless of the motivation, it is unlikely either side will stray from their respective positions for fear of weakening their case down the road. One labor expert noted that Major League Baseball weakened its case to declare an impasse during the 1994 stoppage by continuing to negotiate with players.

If NHL owners detail their demands for a hard cap, as opposed to discussing a luxury tax system, they would protect their "legal framework," the source said. Similarly, the players' association's response will be measured to protect its argument that the owners haven't been negotiating in good faith.

"The players," the source said, "are not going to want to start negotiating on the owners' system."

Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.