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Insider

The NHLPA's diversity problem

11/16/2012

Imagine for a moment that you're Corey Perry. You're skating in Ontario, waiting patiently for this whole lockout mess to come to a conclusion. Your contract with the Ducks expires after this season and you could have secured your future the way so many other players did this summer -- by signing a contract extension. But you decided to wait. Wait to see what the new system brings, what the free-agent market looks like.

Now, that decision is creating more uncertainty than ever.

"The way it's going right now, he may be unrestricted as soon as the summer comes and never plays another game with [the Ducks]," said agent Mark Guy of Newport Sports. "Or he signs a new contract with them. Both sides are going to have to make a decision going forward."

But that's not a decision you can make right now, not with the two negotiating sides hung up on how to split up billions. You waited patiently as the two sides worked toward a 50-50 split and more robust revenue sharing. You've waited patiently as the Make Whole provision became the most debated and heated part of the fight, even if you're like 40 percent of your NHLPA colleagues who don't have a contract after this season and whose money this season -- decreasing by the day -- probably won't ever be made whole. That number of unsigned players grows to 75 percent in two years, according to the fine math of the CBC's Elliotte Friedman.

So if you're Perry, you've done your own math and realized that the NHL is willing to put in transition rules for this season so teams can exceed the salary cap for one year. But with the new revenue split, you noticed the salary cap would dive down to the $60 million range next season, which means teams will be shedding salary and scrambling to get under the cap this summer -- just in time for you to hit free agency. It may even force a Ducks team that drafted you and that you respect immensely to make a choice between you and longtime teammate Ryan Getzlaf ... if you're both still teammates after the trade deadline. If there is a trade deadline. And if Getzlaf is gone and Teemu Selanne is too, do you even want to stay?

And really, the fight in these negotiations that affects you most is still yet to come. It's the fight over contract rights. You're one year off a Hart Trophy season, so that makes you a candidate for a lifetime deal. And you have much more hockey left than the five-year limit the league wants to put on long-term contracts. Even a 5 percent maximum variation clause, which many people seem willing to concede to the NHL to get a deal done, affects your bottom line. You'll be 28 next summer, which makes you an unrestricted free agent, but what if the league decides free agency should start at 29? Or 30? Is your union willing to dig in for that?

Now you're hearing that the league won't move at all on any of the contract rights and wants to take a couple of weeks off from negotiating. You're probably wondering if your fellow players have enough stamina left to get the NHL to move on contract rights as far as they did with revenue sharing and the Make Whole provision. You can only hope.

The case of Corey Perry is unique.

In reality, he's going to get his money one way or another. In any system, general managers seem to find a way to pay 50-goal scorers.

"Historically, if you look at players in Corey's position, recently more and more of those guys have signed going into their last years," Guy said. "Most of those guys have signed during the last season. The CBA situation has thrown a wrench into that."

Not that Perry will have trouble finding work when this is all settled.

"If he chooses and Anaheim chooses to make a deal, I don't think we'll have any issues working something out," Guy said. "If he chooses or Anaheim chooses not to, he's a year [removed] from being the MVP of the National Hockey League."

But what about guys who aren't former MVPs? If the league holds firm on contract rights and doesn't provide more flexibility for next year moving forward on transition rules, those blue-collar players with expiring contracts may be in for a challenging environment.

Take the Red Wings for example. They have four fairly prominent players with expiring contracts after this season: Jimmy Howard, Valtteri Filppula, Danny Cleary and Ian White. Each one can make a strong case for a raise, but if the salary cap is $10 million lower than it is now, they won't all be getting it. Especially if Detroit decides to add a big salary on defense. In the past, an organization like the Red Wings would have had no problem taking care of all four unrestricted free agents. If the cap comes plunging down next season and GM Ken Holland wants to add salary elsewhere, that won't happen. The priority would be signing Howard and Filppula and moving on from there, sending Cleary and White into a free-agent market that could be saturated by players cut loose by cap teams trying to shed salary.

And what about Alexander Edler? The Canucks pushed hard to sign him before the expiration of the last CBA because he was set to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1. Now, if the NHL raises the age of free agency to 28, the 26-year-old defenseman may not have the leverage he did this summer, coming off his best season. He may not even be an unrestricted free agent anymore.

That's the challenge for the NHLPA. When you have 700-plus members, the circumstances are wide ranging and very personal to each of them. Those who are signed long term are militant in fighting for the Make Whole provision; those who aren't may quietly have other priorities. The reality is, as American Thanksgiving approaches, there's still much to be decided and much to fight over.

"It all goes into what the PA is trying to do in terms of protecting not only the contracts there right now, but how it's going to be with contracts moving forward," Guy said. "Contract rights are now starting to bubble to the forefront as the next biggest issue. As they go through and get closer in each issue, the next issue becomes the big one."

But by all means fellas, take a couple of weeks off.