Review of Recent NHL CBA News – May 17, 2012.

A roundup of the most notable CBA news and notes for mid-May 2012.

Back in January, NHL fans were assured initial negotiations regarding the next round of NHL collective bargaining would begin following the All-Star Game.

That subsequently changed to a vague point later in the regular season,to some point following the Stanley Cup Playoffs

It’s believed there’s been some quiet talk behind the scenes between the two sides , but the real negotiations probably won’t start until mid-July at the earliest, allowing time for the NHL Awards, entry draft weekend, and the opening week of unrestricted free agency.

In mid-March, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman professed to be unconcerned (“I’m not worried. At all”) over when negotiations would start, saying his side was ready whenever the PA was ready to talk.

Later in March, player agents Allan Walsh and Kurt Overhardt spoke with SI.com regarding the potential issues which could be raised during negotiations, including rumors the league could seek to reduce the players’ share of revenues.

As the two sides haven’t formally opened talks, Walsh didn’t specify what the issues could be, but suggested they could be complex.

Overhardt believed the team owners could attempt to reduce the players’ share of revenue. He said the players he’s spoken with claimed they didn’t want to accept another revenue reduction after giving back so much following the previous lockout.

Both agents were unwilling to say there could be another lengthy lockout, but admitted telling their clients to prepare financially for the worst, though they’re not telling them to prepare to play hockey in Europe next season.

Certainly sounds grim, though in preparing their clients for the possibility of the worst case scenario, the agents are only doing their jobs.

Glimmers of hope, however, were heard in late-April, when Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman (and team PA rep) Brooks Orpik expressed optimism a deal could be done without the loss of a season.

He noted the team had “quite a few” unpublicized, well-attended PA meetings, adding there was “more communication between the two sides than most people are aware of”.

Orpik went on to say he believed both sides were “pretty optimistic” a deal could get done, noting there’s too much to lose to have another work stoppage.

That optimism was shared two days later by Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli and forward Shawn Thornton.

Chiarelli pointed out the absence of a “doom and gloom” atmosphere compared to the lead-up to the previous round of CBA talks, while Thornton said he liked playing under the current system.

While Thornton isn’t keen about talk of another rollback, especially considering the 24 percent give-back the players swallowed following the previous lockout, he also doesn’t want to go through another long work stoppage.

Bruins player rep Dan Paille, meanwhile, expressed confidence players would be in training camp in September and next season should start on time.

“For me, I think it should be pretty clear that we’ll have a season next year”, said Paille.

Hooray! Huzzah! Let the joy bells ring! No lockout, no strike, nothing to see hear, go about your summer, nothing to worry about.

Well, not so fast.

Josh Yohe of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review claimed “many players” are expecting the start of next season to be delayed, that they suspect the owners – unlike eight years ago – aren’t on the same page, the NHLPA was told the league has no data relating to divisional realignment, and the Penguins front office is adamant the salary cap remain in place.

A recent headline on Forbes.com asked, “Will (NHLPA director) Donald Fehr Spoil the NHL Party?”.

The piece acknowledged Fehr, though opposed to a salary cap in any form, won’t attempt to eliminate the NHL’s current cap system, but he could try to “carve out more exceptions to the cap and loosening limits on contract lengths”, as well as push for an end to the hated escrow clause.

The article’s author, Tom van Riper, ended on an optimistic note, suggesting Fehr is a deal maker who’ll try to get the best deal he can for the players, advising the league they’d “do well to hang onto what they’ve got”, which is to keep the league’s current resurgence in TV ratings going.

With the NHL set to post a league-high record of $3.2 billion in revenues, a 195 percent increase over the 2003-04 season (the last before the current CBA), it’s little wonder the players aren’t keen to consider any attempt by the league to further reduce their share.

That’s especially true when one considers the average player salary is now $2.4 million, up from $1.83 million in 2003-04, and $1.46 million in 2005-06, the first season under the current cap system.

PA special counsel Steve Fehr, (Donald’s brother), earlier this week let it be known the players still don’t know what the league is seeking, as formal negotiations have yet to open, but they would fight any attempt to further reduce their revenue share.

Fehr pointed to the players massive give-backs during the last round of CBA negotiations, which the league claimed it needed to resolve its problems, adding if those problems still exist, other solutions could be required.

He also added he didn’t know if the NHL, like the NFL and NBA, would push for reduced revenue for the players, or if they’ll take the approach of MLB owners, who last year didn’t seek major concessions from the players and reached an agreement on a new labor deal without a work stoppage.

Fehr also noted Bettman’s comments suggesting a quick and easy negotiation, and hoped that’s the direction the league is willing to take.

Meanwhile, Tim Panaccio of CSNPhilly.com recently spoke with a member of the NHL Board of Governors, who claimed all the big market could would “max out” on the salary cap this summer, because if the league had to adjust the cap in the next CBA, it would do so across the board without penalizing the top spenders.

As I noted in a recent Kukla’s Korner blog, that would be a “win-win” for the big spenders. Either the cap won’t go down, in which case, they can afford to “max out”, and if it does go down, it’ll be due to a rollback in existing contracts, meaning they won’t have to shed salaries to become cap compliant.

To the surprise of no one, the NHL this week informed the PA of its plans to terminate and/or modify the CBA when it expires on September 15.

This is of course merely procedural, as the PA was expecting to receive this notice, but that has raised some concerns of the league “firing the first shot” in what could be another long labor battle.

So, what’s to be gleaned from all this?

The NHL’s supposed intent to reduce the players revenue share is currently only conjecture at this point. No one on the league side has categorically stated that is their intent.

We know the current CBA hasn’t been the “cure-all” Bettman and his media sycophants claimed it would be when the deal was implemented in the summer of 2005. The NHL remains what the Globe & Mail’s David Shoalts called a league of “have” and “have-nots”, with the richest teams turning profits of $40 million and the poorest showing losses in the same amount.

We know the PA doesn’t wish to accept another reduction in their revenue share, and who can blame them? They had a cap implemented upon overall payrolls, individual salaries, entry level salaries, and bonuses. They saw their salaries rolled back 24 percent, and an escrow claw-back imposed upon them. Little wonder they feel they’ve given back enough.

Though official negotiations haven’t begun, informal discussions behind the scenes have occurred.

Despite the concerns of some in the MSM and blogosphere, there appears optimism on both side toward getting a deal done without resorting to any form of work stoppage. Perhaps that’s merely wishful thinking for public consumption, but unquestionably the atmosphere between the two sides is far less toxic than it was back in 2004.

Big market and Canadian-based franchises (thanks to the increased value of the Canadian dollar) are raking in the cash, but there are others, mainly in the American Sun Belt, struggling to make do.

If the league is willing to look at other options beside squeezing the players for more of their share of revenue (perhaps a more lucrative, workable form of revenue-sharing), it’s possible a new deal can be worked out without delay to the start of next season.

On the other hand, if they seek even more concessions from the players, threatening lockout while once again painting the players as the bad guys, then this could get ugly in a hurry.

Eight years ago, we knew for certain a work stoppage was coming, as the animosity between the two sides had been building for years. This time around, things have been considerably quieter. Some interpret that as the calm before the storm. Others suggest it’s a positive indicator of a relatively painless negotiation process.

We won’t know how this could go down until probably late summer, certainly by September 15th when the current CBA expires.

Until then, everything is just speculation, and it would be best for now not to get too worked up over gloomy reports suggesting another labor war is coming.