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Puckin' Around With Spector

NHL CBA Gamesmanship Well Underway.

Last week’s NHL GM meetings concluded with no indication when the league and the NHLPA will finally open negotiations toward a new collective bargaining agreement.

The current CBA expires on September 15th, and while that date is still months away, the fact negotiations toward a new deal have not begun is a tad disconcerting for NHL followers fearful of another work stoppage.

Both sides last fall hinted talks would probably begin soon after the All-Star weekend, but nearly two months following that event, it’s apparent that’s not going to happen before the end of the regular season.

It’s now believed the NHLPA would prefer to start negotiations following the end of the 2011 Stanley Cup playoffs, in order to have as many players available as possible to take part in the talks.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, meanwhile, maintains it’s “business as usual” for the 30 NHL general managers, who can continue to operate this summer under the current CBA until its expiration on September 15th.

The GMs can continue to trade, sign or release players as they’ve done every summer under the current agreement, with a salary cap limit projected to be somewhere between $69 - $72 million, though that number is expected to be only temporary, if the league is successful in the next CBA in reducing the players’ share of revenue from 57% to what most believe will be a “50-50” split.

A couple of signs appeared as to what could be included or excluded in the next CBA.

ESPN’s Scott Burnside last week quoted sources expressing doubts over an “amnesty buyout” -  allowing teams a one-time-only, penalty-free buyout to dump a high-salaried player too expensive to retain – in the next agreement as there was at the start of the current one.

Bettman declined to discuss that issue, but is keen for the adoption of the divisional realignment plan agreed upon by the league board of governors last fall, but rejected by the PA over what they claimed was the league’s unwillingness to accept their input into the matter.

The current divisional arrangements will remain in place for next season, but if Bettman and the board of governors get their way, the new alignment - which would see the Winnipeg Jets moved to a new division, or “conferences”, among the other mid-western NHL clubs – will be implemented at the same time as the new CBA, or soon thereafter.

Bettman claimed to be unconcerned over the delay in starting up negotiations, suggesting new PA director Donald Fehr and his new staff are still taking some time to get used to their jobs and to a game they’re unfamiliar with.

While the game Bettman was referring to was, of course, hockey, one can’t help but see a double meaning, for while Fehr had considerable success heading Major League Baseball’s players’ union, he’s squaring off against an adversary different from those he faced in the baseball labor wars.

Some fans may take the cancellation of the league’s “Premiere Games”, in which selected NHL teams have opened their seasons in predetermined European cities, as an ominous indication the league doesn’t expect 2012-13 to begin on time.

Another ominious signal was a report by ESPN.com’s Craig Custance indicating a majority of the player agents he’d spoken to have been telling clients to start making necessary financial arrangements in the event of another work stoppage.

That could spur this summer’s crop of restricted and unrestricted free agents to seek large signing bonuses as part of any new contracts signed before September 15th, thus ensuring they’ll have money to tide them over for a year if there’s another potentially season-killing lockout.

Blogger Tom Benjamin has the best take on this situation.

“Donald Fehr knows he is going to get squeezed, and he’d prefer to get squeezed later. If that causes uncertainty among the GMs, so be it. He’s playing defense and delay is the first tactic. He’s telescoping the negotiating window and the time available for the NHL PR machine to drum up fan support for rich owners”....

“Bettman is also correct: This is not a complicated negotiation and there is plenty of time. There are a few easy to resolve one way or the other issues and there is money. Bettman wants a big whack of money and Gary can hardly wait to tell the NHLPA how much more the owners want over the next ten years. Donald Fehr isn’t looking forward to it at all and he wants lots of players in that first meeting with Bettman. He’s going to let Gary tell them directly that they make way too much money.”

While the actual negotiations haven’t begun, the gamesmanship - which began last fall over the realignment issue - is well and truly underway. Tally ho!

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Comments

Avatar

I thought signing bonuses were forbidden, and the only allowed bonuses were for ELCs and 35+ contracts.

Posted by Herm from the office on 03/21/12 at 10:41 AM ET

Lyle Richardson's avatar

Nope. Grabovski, for example, got a $1.5 million signing bonus on his new contract with the Maple Leafs.

http://capgeek.com/players/display.php?id=178

Posted by Lyle Richardson on 03/21/12 at 11:49 AM ET

Avatar

My bad. But it is capped in 10% of the salary, right?

Posted by Herm from the office on 03/21/12 at 11:59 AM ET

Lyle Richardson's avatar

Correct. I realize ten percent might not seem like much, but when we’re talking millions of dollars, it’s a significant amount of coin, and why we could see more players seek signing bonuses in any contracts they sign this summer as a means of ensuring a “rainy day fund” in the event of a work stoppage.

Posted by Lyle Richardson on 03/21/12 at 12:48 PM ET

CaptainDennisPolonich's avatar

Work stoppage. Bet on it. Has Donald Fehr ever been involved in a pro sports labor negotiation that didn’t end in a work stoppage?

Posted by CaptainDennisPolonich from The Land of Fake Boobs and Real Nuts on 03/21/12 at 01:13 PM ET

Nathan's avatar

Work stoppage. Bet on it. Has Donald Fehr ever been involved in a pro sports labor negotiation that didn’t end in a work stoppage?

Posted by CaptainDennisPolonich from Warm and sunny SoCal on 03/21/12 at 12:13 PM ET

Correlation does not imply causation. Even if it did, Fehr also presided over what is widely considered by players, owners, management, and fans alike as the most fair and least tumultuous period of labor relation in MLB history. Fehr and Selig got deals done that nobody knows about simply because there was no strife worth reporting on.

You are making the same mistake most NHL fans have been making since Fehr arrived on the scene. The baseball strike got lots of pub, as it should’ve. But if you dig into the history of baseball, and in particular, the history of collusion amongst MLB owners against players and their domination over player rights with the reserve clause, you will realize that Fehr leading the players to strike in ‘94 was an unfortunate, but necessary step. While it hurt baseball tremendously in the short-term, it once and for all fixed problems that had been deeply entrenched in baseball labor relations for a hundred years.

Posted by Nathan from the scoresheet! on 03/21/12 at 03:23 PM ET

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About Puckin' Around With Spector

I’m Lyle Richardson. You might know me from my website, Spector’s Hockey, my thrice-weekly rumor column at THN.com, my weekly column at Eishockey News (if you read German), and my former gig as a contributing writer to Foxsports.com.

I’ll be writing a once-weekly blog here with my take on all things NHL. Who knows, I might actually find time to debunk a trade rumor or two.