NHL Lockout: 5 Issues to Be Negotiated in Addition to Hockey-Related Revenue

Ryan SzporerContributor IIINovember 11, 2012

NHL Lockout: 5 Issues to Be Negotiated in Addition to Hockey-Related Revenue

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    When the National Hockey League offered a 50-50 split in hockey-related revenue this past October, the collective heart of the hockey world skipped a beat.

    “Is this it?” most asked, cautiously optimistic. I mean, commissioner Gary Bettman himself said the owners were tabling their best offer in an effort to finally get the season underway (so it must have been true).

    The fundamental misunderstanding of the simple concept of negotiating aside, in which every subsequent offer is actually your best offer (if you’re doing it right, that is), even Players’ Association executive director Donald Fehr at the time felt it was a step in the right direction…until of course he read it.

    Counteroffers were made, then summarily rejected by the league, and both sides were left back at the drawing board in specific regard to a “make whole” concept that would enable players’ current contracts to be honored.

    Now at the point where the two sides have been seemingly forced to discuss other issues in order to make any sort of progress, such hot-button topics as securing single-player rooms while on the road earlier in one’s career have begun to creep up. Seriously.

    So, just to get this straight, you’ve dug this ditch in this war of attrition with the enemy, you’re pinned down side by side with essentially your brothers in arms, taking fire from all angles, with the only comfort in the world you’ve got being that they’ve got your back even if a grenade were to drop at your feet and one line in the sand you’ve decided to draw is the need for a provision to get away from them sooner to get the remote control to yourself???

    As a not-so-friendly suggestion to both sides, here are five key-er issues (that have either already been brought up and not) that should be taking center stage in lieu of hockey-related revenue in order to get negotiations moving again.

A Wade Redden Clause

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    Obviously, negotiating a no-movement clause is the onus of the player, but, as much of a second-rate defenseman New York Ranger Wade Redden has become, one has to see his side of the story: that the only reason he’s been exiled to the minors the past two seasons is because the team made such a stupid offer (six-year, $39-million deal) to him in the first place.

    What was he to do? Tell Glen Sather, “That’s actually Zdeno Chara money. I’m Wade Redden. Don’t worry. The Senators actually made the same mistake”?

    Obviously mistakes on Redden’s part have been made as well, leading his career path to the point at which he is now, but who would have thought making $39 million would have been one of them?

    This year, New York elected not to assign him to the Connecticut Whale, meaning he’s not getting paid. But, on the bright side, Redden is finally, officially an NHL player again!

    In 2008 if he signs for a much more affordable cap hit of $4 million, it’s very likely he remains with the Rangers and is clamoring to get back to NHL hockey instead of the minors, where he’s more freak show than player and could even legitimately serve as the Whale’s mascot instead, with his $5 million salary and all.

    The situation is beyond embarrassing for all involved, and the NHLPA would be wise to try and prevent players earning a certain amount of money to be demoted simply as a means of not being stuck with the cap hit.

    Signing Redden was their mistake. They should have to live with the consequences, whether that means buying him out or being forced not to spend as much on the rest of the roster (not to mention icing a defensively incompetent team as well).

2014 Olympics

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    Largely absent from negotiations has been the issue of the NHL’s participation (or lack thereof) in the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

    Remember back when Russian superstars like Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin were saying that they would represent their country no matter what, no matter Bettman’s decision on whether he would allow NHL players to compete?

    Remember when that was the only thing about which NHL fans were worried? Remember how blissful it was, thinking just a few short months ago that this was a so-called major point of contention between the players and owners?

    Okay, not blissful, but certainly less insanity inducing.

    International Ice Hockey Federation head Rene Fasel is operating under the assumption that the NHL will be there, but as recently as late September the league had not committed one way or another (via the National Post). It’s almost as if something else came up around that time.

    In any case, if NHL players were that passionate about going there once upon a time, they should be now. Has their national pride suddenly been replaced by an unquenchable thirst for more millions of dollars? I turn your attention to a quote from Pittsburgh Penguin Evgeni Malkin from this past September (via Puck Daddy):

    "I don't know of any American or Canadian player who doesn't want to play in the Olympics. I spoke with many of them, including Sid[ney Crosby] and other guys, and they all understand that this tournament takes place once every four years. And it is one of the most important events in the world of hockey. That's why players are eager to go. Those who don't want to go are those who only want to make money and don't love hockey. I don't know any player who doesn't want to participate in World Championships or the Olympics."

    Well said.

    Bottom line: Even if it isn’t an issue in the negotiation process right now, make it one if you’re a player. If you’re an owner, concede to it, even if the lockout continues to drag on and interrupting play in the middle of next season means additional losses, because there’s something awfully fishy about wanting to protect your assets from potential injury playing at the Olympics when:

    a)    You seem to be just fine watching them play overseas right now as long as it means you ultimately winning this labor dispute and making more millions of dollars, and

    b)   Remember: Players can just as easily get injured by a snow blower than during a game (again via Puck Daddy).

Entry-Level Contracts

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    Entry-level contracts (ELCs) are considered by many to be a rite of passage, considering their salary limit of $925,000. Of course, that “many” comprises just NHL veterans, as a $925,000-per-year contract (excluding bonuses) sure beats any Bar Mitzvah of which I’ve ever heard.

    While a CBA that increases that limit, or, God forbid, lets teams pay rookies as much as they want would effectively let salaries spiral out of control (and ultimately fly in the face of the salary cap), the length of entry-level contracts has been raised as a legitimate issue in negotiations.

    The league has offered to reduce the length of ELCs from three years to two (via thestar.com), effectively letting players make more money more quickly.

    However, this also gives players less time to break out into superstardom, meaning their sophomore contracts could very realistically be much less lucrative than they are currently.

    For example, take current restricted free agent Michael Del Zotto of the New York Rangers. After scoring 10 goals and 41 points last season, he has much more leverage negotiating a new contract now than he would have had after 2010-11 when he scored just two goals and 11 points in 47 games.

    It’s a compromise of sorts, but a condition from which the NHL isn’t willing to back down, indicating this isn’t as much an olive branch as a well thought out idea to drive down salaries.

Unrestricted Free Agency

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    Currently, players are able to become unrestricted free agents at the age of 25, which was a concession on the part of the league from the last lockout. Now, the NHL wants to push it up to 28, or after 10 years in the league.

    This is a key issue that hasn’t been getting the amount of coverage it deserves, as it has indirectly helped to drive up player salaries.

    Of course, former Edmonton Oiler general manager Kevin Lowe had a little something to do with it, at least according to Brian Burke (via tsn.ca), but that’s a long story.

    The real, short and simple truth is unrestricted free agency is a big reason why you may have noticed some second contracts getting longer and longer in term. The sooner players become UFAs, the more money for longer periods of time teams are going to throw their way beforehand, even if they have yet to reach their full potential. This all to prevent them from going elsewhere.

    It’s a generally accepted fact that players don’t hit their prime until 28, so, whether the league has realized this or not, pushing unrestricted free agency up a few years gives teams more time to successfully gauge whether or not a player will pan out (but just before they peak professionally).

    This will give them more leverage and more of a chance of paying players what they’re actually “worth” instead of, say, $39 million over six years to a certain Montreal Canadiens goalie with just one playoff series to his name (but presumably a lot of ranch land out west).

    Ironically, the current system has worked in the case of Dustin Penner, with the one-time overpaid player scheduled to make just $3.25 million after becoming an unrestricted free agent for the first time this past summer. It’s the five years of an undeserved $4.25 million each season just prior that continues to serve as justification as to why the owners need to be saved from themselves.

The Salary Cap

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    While negotiations are hopefully beyond the point at which the NHLPA had been threatening to take the salary cap off the table (thereby setting the process back a few years and into the stone age), some key points pertaining to that sticking point from eight years ago remain in play.

    These include the possibility of lettings teams trade salary and cap hits. No word yet on the general managers who inked the ill-advised deals in the first place.

    In addition, the NHL is looking at capping contracts at five years and year-over-year changes in salary at 5% (via the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette). The idea here is to outright outlaw deals that circumvent the salary cap by front-loading salaries over 10-plus-year periods.

    Finally to help teams properly transition into this supposed new era of prosperity, the league has proposed artificially inflating the salary cap in the first year of the new collective bargaining agreement from the $59.9-million ceiling proposed in the NHL’s October 16 offer (via the Star Tribune).

    Admittedly, these points do at least slightly cross into hockey-related-revenue territory, but there really is little way around bringing up the issue. In regard to current CBA negotiations, there really is nowhere for the league and union to hide from the term.

    One would have thought two months ago anyway.