As the NHL lockout enters Day 110, the two sides complete nine hours of negotiations that move them slowly closer to a new CBA, with plans for further talks later today.

NHL & NHLPA continue to inch closer to ending the lockout.

NHL & NHLPA continue to inch closer to ending the lockout.

CANADIAN PRESS (VIA GLOBAL NEWS):  Chris Johnston reports the NHL and NHLPA completed nine hours of CBA negotiations which ended at 1 pm ET, with plans to continue talks later today. The talks concluded without a deal, but also with the NHLPA opting not to file a disclaimer of interest by the midnight deadline. The PA could, however, conduct another poll of its membership seeking permission for a disclaimer if a deal isn’t struck soon.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA director Donald Fehr both claimed there’d been some progress but the two sides still remain apart on a number of issues. Among those issues is determining the salary cap for 2013-14 and pension funds.  The NHL continues to seek a salary cap of $60 million, while the PA seeks one of $65 million. Sources also indicate a cap on escrow has not come up so far in this week’s talks.  Though the NHL has set a deadline of January 11 in order to stage a 48-game season, there had been some talk of an earlier settlement resulting in a 52- game season, though that seems less likely now.

TORONTO STAR: Damien Cox reports federal mediator Scot Beckenbaugh was involved in Wednesday’s talks and apparently has been involved all week. The reason the league doesn’t want a cap of $65 million is it would set the cap floor at $49 million, which would be higher than some clubs could handle. Cox also reports the league has apparently agreed to two amnesty buyouts, while both sides appear to have reached agreement on salary variance, as the league may be willing to go higher, “probably to 20 percent to meet the union’s request”.

ESPN.COM: Pierre LeBrun reports both sides appear to be “digging in ” on the salary cap issue. The league apparently doesn’t want the payroll range in the salary cap to exceed $16 million. LeBrun suggests the salary cap issues could be the one which makes or breaks the deal. Scott Burnside, meanwhile, suggests there should be some middle ground on the cap issue, and finds it hard to imagine that or the pension issue should be the one element which prevents a deal from happening. Both believe that, given the recent progress in negotiations, a new CBA could be reached over the next several days.

THE SPORTING NEWS: Jesse Spector cautions to tread carefully upon the path of optimism, noting Bettman and Fehr didn’t seem to be speaking the same language regarding ongoing talks for today. Bettman said the mediator asked for talks to resume at 10 am ET “and of course we’ll be doing that”, while Fehr seemed to leave things up in the air. “We’ll consider where we are in the morning and figure out what we do next,” he said. “That’s about all I can say about the process.”

CBC.CA: Elliotte Friedman also adopted a tone of caution, pointing out “wide gulfs” still exist on what Fehr called the core economic issues, and suggesting the progress Fehr and Bettman claimed had been made was “likely on smaller stuff”.

SPECTOR’S NOTE: I understand the call for caution, but it seems to be that, slowly and painfully, real progress is taking place in these NHL CBA talks. Like Burnside, I can’t see the salary cap for next season or the pension issue becoming factors which derail this process, as the two sides are now so very close to a deal. It’s going to take some more time, but I feel there is a middle ground there for a salary cap (no higher than $62 million as I see it), and the owners should be willing to give a little more on the pension issue.

The league being willing to allow for two amnesty buyouts is significant, though Cox’s article didn’t indicate if that were at the same time, or allowing one buyout for this season and another for next.  Increasing the salary variance is also significant, as the league had originally sought five percent and recently went up to ten percent. 20 percent would still allow for front-loaded contracts, but nothing as heavily as we saw in the last CBA. That would allow teams some wiggle room on their cap hit to retain or add key players.

That a federal mediator has been involved this week also demonstrates as to the seriousness of this round of talks. Yes, the last two times mediation didn’t help, but that’s because neither side was ready to seriously negotiate until now. The core economic issues remain, but I feel they’ll work harder toward resolving those in the coming days. If there is to be an NHL season, I fully expect negotiations will go right up to the NHL’s January 11th deadline.

THE GLOBE AND MAIL: James Mirtle looked at how a lowered salary cap would effect NHL teams, Susan Krashinsky on how some NHL sponsors are coping with the lockout,  and Bruce Dowbiggin believes the NHL owners have no one to blame but themselves for having to face Donald Fehr during the current lockout.

SPECTOR’S NOTE: It’ll be interesting to see what effect this lockout has upon the NHL’s sponsors over the long term. The reason the league wants a ten-year CBA is to mollify nervous sponsors by ensuring a lengthy period of “labour peace”. Dowbiggin is correct regarding how the NHL owners drove the NHLPA toward hiring Fehr. Had the owners, following the last lockout, made a genuine effort toward repairing their labor relations with the players, they wouldn’t have turned to Fehr, and perhaps this lockout could’ve been avoided.

PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW: Rob Rossi reports the Penguins could face off against the Philadelphia Flyers for a nationally televised matinee game on NBC if the season begins on January 19th.

SPECTOR’S NOTE: Anyone else find it more coincidental the NHL wants a season-saving deal around the same time NBC was scheduled to begin televising NHL regular season games  this season? 

RALEIGH NEWS & OBSERVER: Carolina Hurricanes winger Tuomo Ruutu recently underwent hip surgery and will be sidelined until April.