Lots of work remains to get an NHL deal

Yes, we're closer to an end to the NHL lockout. But there's still a lot of work to be done.

Updated: June 9, 2005, 6:57 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | Special to ESPN.com

A deal that will see the National Hockey League and its players forge a long-term partnership is coming.

That much we know. And we can say, with relative certainty, that enough major obstacles have been overcome in recent days that such a deal is likely by the end of June, if not sooner.

But the spasm of excitement that followed a report that the financial structure for a new deal was in place with actual hard numbers illustrates the still-fragile, still-murky state of negotiations.

The Toronto Globe and Mail reported that both sides have agreed on a financial framework for a six-year deal with a team-by-team salary cap that would be adjusted depending on each team's revenues.

The floating cap system would have a payroll floor of $22 million to $24 million and a ceiling of $34 million to $36 million. There also would be a punitive dollar-for-dollar luxury tax that would kick in at the midpoint between the two ranges, the paper reported.

The numbers looked to be about what one would expect a new cap system to look like. The news, coupled with the league's recent testing of new on-ice changes in Toronto, created a buzz in the hockey world that a deal was at hand.

But sources on both sides of the table say a deal is not assured.

"The Globe story had very inaccurate details," one top bargaining official said Thursday.

The NHL Players Association also downplayed the report, saying no formal agreement has been made on any one element of a new CBA.

"The NHLPA and NHL discussions this week continue to cover a range of issues such as controls on team salaries, revenue sharing, Olympic participation, the amateur player draft and player retention rights. While the parties continue to have discussions to reach a common ground, no agreements have been reached," NHLPA spokesman Jonathan Weatherdon said in a statement.

The problem with trying to isolate one element of this process and define it as being "done" is that each element on the bargaining table is like a strand in a spider's web.

The two sides might have agreed in theory on a cap system very much like the one reported in the Globe, but if there is a breakdown on an issue such as entry-level salaries or salary arbitration or revenue sharing, then the two sides might be forced to retreat to the cap formula and tinker with it to reach an agreement. Tug on one tendril of the web, and the entire structure shifts until the tugging stops and a deal is done.

The two sides were back at it again Thursday, meeting on a range of issues. Although no meetings were planned for Friday, it's possible the session will carry over, such has been the nature of progress in recent weeks.

So what do we know? Or think we know?

• It seems certain the two sides have agreed upon what will constitute revenue in the new NHL and how teams' reporting will be monitored and censured. Sure, this should have been done eight months ago, when part of the 2004-05 season could have been salvaged, but this issue is the foundation of the new collective bargaining agreement. That it has been resolved is a significant achievement.

• It is also certain the players have agreed on a salary cap system that links revenues to salaries and there will be a minimum amount teams must spend and a maximum amount they may spend. Somewhere in the middle, a luxury tax will be imposed on teams spending at the upper levels of the cap range. There also will be some form of revenue sharing to help smaller-market teams, although the source of that revenue (i.e., playoff gates) is still a source of debate. There might be a mechanism that allows teams with greater revenues to spend more on salaries, but it's unlikely the owners will go for a system that puts salaries above 54 percent of total league revenues.

• Entry-level salaries will be capped in the neighborhood of $850,000, and the performance bonuses that allowed young players to break the bank under the old CBA will be eliminated or dramatically curtailed. Entry-level contracts likely will extend to four years instead of the three under the previous CBA.

• Arbitration, one of the main factors in the inflationary nature of player salaries over the course of the last CBA, will be dramatically revamped, restricting the ability of players to obtain huge raises before becoming unrestricted free agents. It's likely the new arbitration rules will provide a limited option for clubs to take underachieving players to arbitration.

• The players' offer to roll back 24 percent of all existing salaries will be part of any new deal.

• There will be significant changes to the on-ice product, some of which will be covered in the new CBA. Goalie pads, for instance, will be cut from 12 inches to 11. Managers had wanted a 10-inch limit, but concerns over safety resulted in the 11-inch decision. A shootout to end tie games, tag-up offsides, a form of no-touch icing, moving the nets closer to the end boards and perhaps the removal of the red line also will be introduced when the game returns.

• There will be a draft, and although league officials have not shared the exact details with GMs, it almost certainly will give every team a shot at the No. 1 pick and potential franchise player Sidney Crosby. Teams that have not qualified for the playoffs in recent years will be afforded greater chances to secure that pick. Draft order will be reversed at the end of each round (teams will pick 1-30 in the first round, then 30-1 in the second round, and so forth).

• Teams that have not signed previously drafted players will be given a period of time before the draft to sign those players. It has been suggested that some players might seek to be considered free agents if they aren't signed by July 1, but teams have been told they won't lose these assets.

• It's expected the age at which a player will qualify for unrestricted free agency will drop from 31 to 30.

So, what don't we know? Lots.

Because the players have capitulated on the salary cap – the mother of all issues – it will be incumbent on NHLPA executive director Bob Goodenow to make at least some gains on a number of ancillary issues. It has been suggested that NHLPA president Trevor Linden and NHLPA director of business relations Mike Gartner have been spearheading the recent progress, while combative Goodenow has played a less prominent role. Though this might be true, the fine details of any new deal ultimately will have Goodenow's imprint, and with his job at stake, Goodenow will not go quietly into the night.

Some of these outstanding issues include:

• Qualifying offers to players under the old CBA required clubs to offer at least 100 percent of previous salaries or risk losing players to free agency. Owners want to be able to make qualifying offers less than current salaries, but Goodenow will fight to stay as close to the old system as possible.

• In a related issue, the league included a clause in a previous proposal that would have forced restricted free agents to sign with their club within 14 days of the opening of training camp or be ineligible to play for that club for the entire season. Goodenow likely will be successful in taking that off the table.

• The widespread belief has been that all 2004-05 salaries will be wiped out by the lockout. It would be a major coup for Goodenow if he were able to see those contracts honored in 2005-06. Even finding a mechanism whereby players were able to recoup some of that lost money would be a significant achievement.

• Players would like to participate in the Olympics in Turin early in 2006. Commissioner Gary Bettman has always maintained he does not want to break up the 2005-06 schedule after a lockout. Having the game's best players playing on the world stage can never be a bad thing, especially for a league that basically has disappeared into a black hole, so this is one area where the owners might be prepared to give in.

Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.

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