Owners will press for deal

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:22 AM ET

Even though National Hockey League commissioner Gary Bettman has once again imposed censorship on the owners, snippets of information are leaking out, and it would appear that Bettman is now under considerable pressure to reach a settlement with the players.

The most obvious reason is that a majority of owners realize they could have made money under the Dec. 9 proposal from the players, the one that offered a 24% salary rollback and other significant concessions.

They're not too pleased about Bettman holding out for his personal pet project -- a hard salary cap.

After all, those concessions were so significant that the league could justifiably have claimed a substantial victory and gone back to work.

But there are other reasons Bettman wants a quick settlement, not the least of which is the status of draft picks.

Once again, it's the wealthier teams that are providing much of the impetus. After all, it's no accident that financial success and good drafting go hand-in-hand.

With the lockout in place, teams are not allowed to sign players, but the competitive future of some teams is partly dependent upon draft picks they made two years ago.

This is where the situation gets sticky. Under the terms of the old collective bargaining agreement -- under which those youngsters were drafted -- those taken in 2003 go back into the draft pool if they have not signed with their NHL teams by June 1.

But they can't sign if the new CBA has not been hammered out.

Some teams, like the Pittsburgh Penguins for instance, got lucky. Because they were in such abysmal shape, they had little choice but to sign goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury.

Some other teams, like the Calgary Flames and Anaheim Mighty Ducks, were smart enough to look ahead, evaluate the possibilities and act accordingly.

The hockey world is raving about the potential of Red Deer defenceman Dion Phaneuf, who the Flames signed to an NHL contract last summer, before the lockout began.

The Ducks had two highly rated picks in the 2003 draft, Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, and were astute enough to get both to sign on the dotted line.

But examples of the other side of the coin are Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, arguably the best two players in the Ontario Hockey Association at the moment. Both are Philadelphia Flyers draft picks and neither has been signed.

Then there's defenceman Brent Seabrook, the top prospect from Lethbridge who was selected by the Chicago Blackhawks but did not come to terms.

All the players mentioned above were first-round picks, but those chosen in the later rounds often develop into great players.

Yet of the 291 players selected in that 2003 draft, only 56 have signed with their NHL teams.

Without a new CBA, there can be no draft. The concept is based on restraint of trade and is therefore illegal unless both sides -- the league and the players -- agree to it.

As a result, a number of NHL teams are pressing Bettman to get a deal in a hurry.

BARGAINING CHIP

It's not clear what will happen otherwise. Probably, as part of the negotiations, the league will press for an extension. But that would give the NHLPA another bargaining chip, one that could be used to elevate the entry-level status.

If June should come and go without a draft, perhaps these 20-year-olds could declare themselves free agents and claim the right to sign with any team when the league resumes.

In short, it's a legal morass and one that the owners would like to avoid. They selected those kids because they have faith in their future and they want to see them in their respective organizations.

They've made that point clear to Bettman.


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