In the last year, three of the four major professional sports agreed on new collective bargaining agreements after intense negotiations. Now, it's the NHL's turn.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has consistently said he doesn't expect CBA talks to begin between the league and the NHL Players Association until after the All-Star break. Well, it's here and the showdown between Bettman and new union executive director Donald Fehr is imminent. The current CBA expires after this season.
"Whenever they're ready, we're ready," Bettman said last week, according to NHL.com. "We've been ready."
And Fehr has been getting ready. Since taking the job with the NHLPA, Fehr has spent his time canvassing the players and learning exactly what their needs and concerns are heading into this negotiation.
"He's done a good job of getting everyone's opinions, thoughts and feelings and bringing it all together and forming his own thoughts and feelings," said Phoenix Coyotes goalie Jason LaBarbera, the team's player representative. "He has a job to do and he does it."
Optimism is typically higher than the negotiations before a lockout, but that doesn't mean there aren't issues both sides will fight hard for. The failure to agree on a suitable realignment strategy was a good indication that neither side will back down.
So what are the major issues? Start here:
Revenue division -- This is the big one. Right now the players get 57 percent of the revenue (when revenues exceed $2.7 billion) and the owners will be looking to lower that number significantly like owners in the NFL and NBA were able to negotiate. The NBA agreement includes a 50-50 split of basketball-related income and the NFL players got 47 percent of all revenue.
One source said he expects Bettman to start at 45 percent and work up from there. "He'll probably have a hard [revenue] cap in his head that under no circumstances will he go any higher," the source said.
The salary cap floor -- There are a number of small-market teams that would love to see the salary cap floor removed, but it's been one of the best things to come out of the lockout for the players. Partly because of the floor, the average salary has raised to around $2.3 million, according to one source. "That's been a big plus for the players," he said.
The best example of that was the forced shopping spree the Florida Panthers went on this year. While GM Dale Tallon made good use of his money, the Panthers wouldn't have hit free agency as hard without the floor during what is still the early part of Tallon's rebuilding plan.
Rollback -- The players gave a 24 percent rollback on their contracts coming out of the lockout, and that is expected to be brought up again this time around. A good indication that players believe a rollback is possible comes in the number of recent free agents who demanded signing bonuses or a large part of their contract be paid before the CBA expired. They weren't taking their chances with another salary cut.
Amnesty -- The NBA and its union agreed to an amnesty deal in which teams could waive one player over the course of the 10-year deal and that player wouldn't count against the salary cap. The player still gets paid. It's possible a similar deal could be orchestrated between the NHL and the NHLPA that might free Wade Redden from the minors or allow the Philadelphia Flyers to hit the reset button on the Ilya Bryzgalov deal.
"I'm sure that's something that will be discussed," said Niklas Kronwall, the Detroit Red Wings' player rep. "Just off the top of my head, if a guy can get bought out and the owners can get another player in there, I think that would be beneficial."
Escrow -- The players hate losing a portion of every check to escrow, but this is a tough one to solve. In a salary cap system, it may be a necessary evil. Another option would be to pay the players 100 percent of their salary then have the league send a bill after the season once the revenue is accounted for. "Nobody wants to get an invoice for $100,000 in the fall," a source said. "What bothers the players is that they seem to be incurring all the risk of the downturn in the league or the bad decisions made by teams."
On the bright side, the players' escrow money is invested, earning interest, and there's a tax benefit. It's just miserable to see a portion of every check disappear. It would be for anyone.
Long-term contracts -- There has been plenty of speculation that the league will target guaranteed contracts, but nothing would rally the players more than that. Plus, today's NHL contracts aren't exactly guaranteed, as one prominent agent reminded. "What people need to understand from the outset of that discussion, it's a misnomer to believe that NHL contracts are guaranteed," the agent said. "The NHL does not have guaranteed contracts. Contracts are only guaranteed to 66 percent of their face value."
But the league hates the Ilya Kovalchuk-like contracts that attempt to circumvent the salary cap, so expect the NHL to push for a CBA that is much more restrictive in how much the annual salary can change from year to year over the course of a contract. The huge, frontloaded contracts may soon be extinct in the NHL.
Entry-level contracts -- Many general managers believe they gave away too much during the last round of CBA negotiations, when the age of free agency dropped to 25. There's also a lot of concern among general managers over the big jump in pay being given in the second contracts. Look for the owners to try to extend the entry-level contract from three years to five years in an attempt to delay the unrestricted free agent age to 27.
Expansion revenue -- Under the current CBA, the players wouldn't get a cut from any revenue brought in from expansion fees. Assuming the next CBA is in the 8-10-year range, this will be an issue. Many believe it's all but certain that the NHL sees expansion by two teams in the next decade, and the league's realignment plan strongly supports that theory. "The NHLPA is going to want a piece of that money," a source said.
• Since the St. Louis Blues signed Brian Elliott to a contract extension, there has been a lot of talk as to what the organization should do with the talented Ben Bishop, who is having a great season with Peoria of the American Hockey League. The 6-foot-7 goalie would be an interesting addition, and he has to play 17 games this season with the Blues or he'll remain a Group 6 unrestricted free agent. If he's traded and gets the necessary playing time, he'll become a restricted free agent, which has led to the conclusion that a trade may be coming.
But Blues GM Doug Armstrong said the organization has no problem keeping Bishop in the AHL this season, especially if it helps his young players go on a long playoff run in the American League. "You never know what's going to happen between now and July 1," Armstrong said during a Tuesday phone conversation. "If Ben stays in Peoria the remainder of the year, goes deep in the playoffs, that's worth something to the development of all the players. I'd rather see that than get a [late draft] pick."
• The banged-up Tampa Bay Lightning are showing some life heading into the All-Star break, winning four consecutive games to give fans in Tampa a glimmer of hope. But they still remain nine points outside a playoff spot, and GM Steve Yzerman has eased up on his attempts to land a goalie or help on defense through a trade. "We aren't in a position to trade draft picks or young players for rentals," Yzerman said in an email to CBC's Elliotte Friedman. The one positive is that they do play in the league's worst division. The Southeast doesn't have a single team with a positive goal differential. It's also the only division without at least one team over 60 points.
• Speculation over whether the Montreal Canadiens should trade P.K. Subban got even more heated when reporters witnessed assistant coach Randy Ladouceur shouting at Subban during a Tuesday drill. To his credit, Subban took the yelling in stride. "I'm a young guy and I need to be coached and that's what he's doing," Subban told the Montreal Gazette. "Coaches and players are never going to agree on all things but at the end of the day, I'm 22 years old and so it doesn't matter what I think. He's the coach."
Unless they were to get a huge return, trading the talented young defenseman would be a mistake for the Canadiens.