Points to ponder on future of the CBA
The collective-bargaining agreement still has two seasons to run its course, but its future is a simmering topic among some team executives around the NHL.
It is indeed, for example, in Los Angeles, where the Kings have patiently rebuilt what appears to be a Cup contender and re-energized their market.
Even the failure to sign Ilya Kovalchuk this summer didn't damper the exuberance Kings fans have for their rising club. As long as they re-sign Drew Doughty, Jack Johnson and Wayne Simmonds, who are entering the final years of their contracts before becoming restricted free agents, all is good with Kings fans.
Arguably, our system is upside down from a traditional standpoint. I have to explain to my fans in this market how we're going to keep this team together after they stuck with us through these hard times. ... I want my fans to understand that Tim Leiweke and Philip Anschutz aren't cheap.” -- Kings GM Dean Lombardi on the current CBA
And that's where Kings GM Dean Lombardi gets nervous.
He is consumed by what the next CBA will look like, and that uncertainty makes him pause before he enters serious negotiations with his young core. Right now, he sees a system that doesn't clearly identify how he can properly keep his core together. He's also seen the Chicago Blackhawks blow up part of their team right after winning the Stanley Cup.
"The biggest thing is the uncertainty of planning," Lombardi told ESPN.com. "Whenever you're trying to put a team together under any system, it's about planning ahead. Obviously going forward here, there's a lot of uncertainty. The ability to plan it just seems we shouldn't be in this position of such uncertainty."
ESPN.com chatted with several NHL team executives for this story, but Lombardi was the only one who would go on the record. The league has warned team executives not to talk publicly about CBA matters. But in this case, Lombardi is focused solely on his team, his market and his fans.
"The way we were trained and the way teams have always been built, you drafted well, you developed well," Lombardi said. "Younger used to mean cheap. It wasn't about being cheap. But if you drafted well and developed well, those players were not paid as much as a guy who's been 10 years in the league. That's why Tampa Bay [the Rays] can beat the Yankees -- because they draft and develop and they're not paying top dollar yet until it comes down the road."
Lombardi argued that's currently not the case in this NHL system.
"Arguably, our system is upside down from a traditional standpoint," said the Kings GM. "As we head into these contract negotiations [with Doughty, Johnson and Simmonds], I have to explain to my fans in this market how we're going to keep this team together after they stuck with us through these hard times. Obviously we think we have a chance to be a darn good team for a number of years, but the ability to plan it's just frustrating. You need some guidelines.
"I want my fans to understand that [Kings CEO and governor] Tim Leiweke and [Kings owner] Philip Anschutz aren't cheap," Lombardi added. "It's the uncertainty of trying to sign our players [that] makes it difficult for us to be smart."
Lombardi's concerns are well supported by some of his brethren.
One team executive who says Lombardi's analysis of the current system is technically correct also adds it simply means you have to adjust your ways of planning. In this system, the teams that will succeed are those that correctly identify their young core talent early and accurately, and spend accordingly.
"It doesn't matter what the rules are, it's up to us to make sound decisions," said the team executive, who requested anonymity. "It's not about the CBA, it's about teams being smart."
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly also declined interviews for this story. From their point of view, the expiry of the CBA is two years away, so why fuss over it now? Fair enough.
But we can make these educated statements regarding the CBA in its current form: The league is generally satisfied with the system and how it's working. But that doesn't mean the league believes the economics are exactly right and there are tweaks it would like to implement in the next round of talks with the NHL Players' Association, whenever that may be. (Until Donald Fehr is officially named the head of the NHLPA, it's anyone's guess when the two sides can get together.)
Among the possibilities for the next CBA, we believe the league may explore the following issues:
• Lower the percentage of the players' share from the revenue pie from the current 57 percent (which would obviously lower the salary cap).
• Explore the magnitude of the payroll range; the current gap is $16 million from the higher to lower limit (this season, it's $59.4 million to $43.4 million).
• Try to scrap salary arbitration, which has long been a thorn in the league's side, especially now in a cap system.
• Adjust the age for unrestricted free agency.
Those topics are some educated speculation on our part, so there will no doubt be countless other tweaks the league will look at.
As for the NHLPA, which also declined comment pending the completion of Fehr's membership-wide vote as new executive director (a process that could be completed by the end of October/early November), we believe these are issues on the front burner for them heading into the next CBA:
• Limit escrow. No word produces more of a lemon face on a player than escrow. Last season, the players forked over 18 percent of their bi-monthly paychecks, although once the final calculations for hockey-related revenue (HRR) are in, they'll likely get between 8-9 percent of that back. The bottom line is that the players will want to limit their exposure in escrow (in the NBA, players have a cap on escrow).
• Better rules for players 35 and over when signing contracts. The rules on those players are so restrictive from the union's perspective, teams are reluctant to sign some quality NHL veterans for fear of being stuck with a cap hit even if the player retires.
• Push to become more of a so-called "partner" with the league and have an official voice in matters concerning marketing and television, etc.
• The players have made their feelings clear about Olympic participation for Sochi in 2014 (they want to go), but they don't view it as a valid bargaining chip for the league.
But the next CBA standoff isn't just about the league and the players. Judging from conversations we have had with different teams, there will be battles within the ownership group. Bettman has been spectacularly effective at keeping his owners in line; in the end, the same may certainly happen again, but right now, there are teams talking a big game behind closed doors.
One particular issue that has pitted different teams against each other is the way the salary cap currently works. Three team executives we spoke to all believe it's outrageous the current system allows for player contracts to be hidden in the minors or in Europe and not count against the cap (Wade Redden and Cristobal Huet are the latest examples).
"You shouldn't be able to buy your way out of mistakes," said one executive.
This issue will pit big-money teams versus middle- and small-market clubs. Big-market clubs will push back by saying that's why they're contributing money to the revenue-sharing plan, which smaller-market clubs get cash from.
We have the sense more teams than not want the Huet/Redden problems solved in the next CBA. Of course, the NHLPA may oppose that. After all, Redden is getting his full $6.5 million salary to play in the AHL this season. The union will likely want to protect that.
The union will also want to protect liberalized free agency. That was one of the real scores for the NHLPA in the current CBA, and teams hate it.
"It drives salaries," another team executive told ESPN.com.
Several team executives argue that too much money is getting into the hands of young players in this system. High-end players coming out of the entry-level system are signing lucrative, long-term deals, skipping over the so-called "second contract" that existed in the old CBA, a contract that traditionally bridged the gap between a rookie deal and the first big contract a good player would sign in his prime.
Liberalized unrestricted free agency is a big part of that. Seven years of service and you're UFA. Patrice Bergeron of the Boston Bruins is 25 years old and slated for UFA status after this season because he was an 18-year-old rookie. Jimmy Howard was nominated for the Calder Trophy last season, but because he'll be 27 next summer, he's also eligible for UFA status.
"You look at all these long-term deals, you're trying to buy UFA years and you're trying to get some stability on your cap," said one team executive. "No question that's the No. 1 thing that set this off. No question."
We've covered much ground and haven't even touched on the "cheat" contracts, the type that bring down the average cap hit with bogus, low-salaried years added to the end of deals. That has become less of an issue after Daly and his counterparts at the NHLPA amended the current CBA in lieu of the Ilya Kovalchuk controversy with new measures to prevent those types of deals moving forward.
No matter how anyone feels about the current system, the product on the ice is arguably as good as it's ever been, and the parity among teams is unreal. Those were stated goals of this CBA and they were achieved.
Are there flaws in the current CBA? You bet. It's never going to be perfect.
"If the rules change in the next CBA, we still have to make smart decisions," one team executive said. "That's still what it comes to."
Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
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