SUN Hockey Pool

Caps, floors all part of new CBA landscape

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman attends a press conference. (REUTERS/Mike Blake)

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman attends a press conference. (REUTERS/Mike Blake)

Chris Stevenson, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 5:25 PM ET

One year out from the expiry of the current collective bargaining agreement between the NHL and its players, the mood is unexpectedly optimistic a new deal can be achieved without having poker become a staple of our television viewing diet again.

Granted, it was a relatively small sample interviewed on both sides of the equation -- NHL management types and some influential and thoughtful player representatives -- and all of whom spoke did so on the condition they not be quoted.

Labour negotiations are always a sensitive topic.

Given we are a year away from the current CBA's expiration, the default position at this point on both sides is there will be some tough negotiations ahead. But there was a sense the battleground has already been clearly defined and there's time to get it done.

An interesting thought: one individual, in an only slightly joking manner, suggested there might be tougher negotiations between the owners in terms of what they want out of the next CBA than between the owners and the players.

Certainly, as things have evolved under this CBA, there are a growing number of teams finding the living more to their liking nearer the salary cap floor than at the top.

According to capgeek.com's numbers Monday, a third of the league was within $3 million of the $48.3 million cap floor. Fifteen teams -- half the league -- were at or under the $57 million mark, about $7 million less than this year's cap of $64.3 million, which is up from last year's $59.4 million limit.

There are a growing number of voices on the club side which think a salary cap of $64.3 million is too high and competitive balance is lost in the gap between what most of the league's clubs can actually spend (forget about getting to the cap) and what the league's top grossing franchises can afford.

It's the same old problem. The owners usually wind up asking the players to save them from themselves.

Looking at those numbers it is pretty remarkable, for all the talk about struggling franchises and empty seats in some markets, that we have seen the salary cap go from $39 million in 2005-06, the first year of the current contract, to $64 million. The floor is now $9.3 million higher than the first cap.

Given the cap is a function of hockey-related revenue, that is an impressive improvement to the bottom line in the face of a tough economy.

Business in the NHL is good. Certainly the continued strength of the Canadian dollar has helped. The strength of the loonie, with which the NHL cannot take any credit, has bucked up the bottom line for the NHL and its players. The Canadian dollar hit an all-time low of 61.79US cents in 2002, but had risen above its American counterpart by late 2007, the second year of the current CBA, and has stayed close to par since then.

That said, it also means there's more money than ever over which to fight.

There's a feeling on the players' side that a strong and unified players association will be the best guarantee there won't be a work stoppage. New NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr has been keeping a relatively low profile in the media, but agents and players have said his approach of meeting with players in small groups has given the members the feeling it is has taken ownership of its union again.

So, what will be the key points to be negotiated over the next year (and hopefully not longer than that)?

"¢ As I said, there are always going to be a number of clubs who can't spend to the cap and as the cap keeps going up, that number of clubs grows. It's believed some owners in the league would like to roll back the cap from about 58% of hockey-related revenue to 48-50% and, in exchange, likely eliminate the players having to pay escrow in case their take exceeds their allotted share.

"¢ There is going to be a push by the owners to raise the age of unrestricted free agency by at least a couple of years. "You used to have a player until he was 31," said one GM. "Now you can lose them at 25 or 26. You spend a lot of money developing them and just when they're hitting their prime, you can lose them." That means raising the number of accrued seasons to achieve UFA status from seven to nine.

"¢ In the area of owners asking players to help them from themselves, the league would likely look for a cap on contract length to avoid those Marian Hossa-, Ilya Kovalchuk-type deals which are front-loaded to bring down the average cap hit. The number being kicked around? Seven years, max.

"¢ In what shapes up as another big-market/small-market discussion, there are going to be owners who will want to close the loophole which allows clubs to bury contracts in the minors. The $6.5 million a season the New York Rangers don't have to count against the cap for Wade Redden can be spent on somebody else. Some clubs can't afford the luxury of hiding their mistakes.

"¢ Owners will likely ask for the elimination of the salary floor.

"¢ There will also be discussion on arbitration rights for players in their second contracts, perhaps limiting them to one arbitration opportunity in their careers.

That's a pretty good laundry list.

There's also this to consider: Fehr comes from Major League Baseball, with its combination luxury tax and revenue-sharing system. What if he was to pitch a similar system to the NHL and show it could be more beneficial to the clubs than a salary cap system?

As one agent said, food for thought.

One other thing.

The players can always go to sleep knowing no matter what deal they get, people on the owners' side will be trying to figure out ways to circumvent the deal and give players more money before the ink is dry. 


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