NHL Lockout: My view

posted on 2004-10-18 at 00:09:26 by Joel Ross

The NHL season was supposed to start this past week, but of course, it didn't. The players and owners are still grid locked, and there's no resolution in sight.

So what's the solution? I have no idea, but I have seen a few suggestions that I think would help get the owners and players closer to a solution than they are now. Which is no where.

First, and this is the easiest one for the players to agree to, and that's a reduction in the salary structure of rookie contracts. This is simple, because current rookies would probably be grandfathered in, as would any player currently in the first three years in the league. It would really only affect rookies next season, and none of those players are in the NHLPA right now. Today, rookies can make up to $1,300,000 per year, with 50% of that coming in bonuses. Reducing that would start players at a lower salary. The way things are set up right now, players gradually increase until they are 31. By starting at a lower salary, the gradual increase wouldn't have the same affect. If you lowered the number to $800,000, with a 25% bonus cap, the salary would go from $1.95 million per year to $1.2 million. Over three years, that's a pretty good savings.

Now, this was proposed by TSN here. They also recommend a slotted approach, similar to the way the NBA works. I'm not sure I buy that part of it, mainly because the NHL is more like baseball than the NBA or the NFL, when it comes to the draft. Players will get drafted in 2004, but may not play in the NHL until 2005. Maybe a slotted approach for the first 10 picks or so, but beyond that, it would be tough to justify.

I've seen many sources mention lowering the age of unrestricted free agency to anywhere from 28-30. Right now, it's 31. By lowering the age, one of two things could happen: First, since more players will be available, the market will be flooded, driving salaries down. The flip side of that is what happens today. When a big name player hits the free agent market, they usually get a large offer - probably larger than they deserve (see Marty Lapointe, for example. Or anyone on the Rangers roster!). Will the flood of players offset the outrageous offers? I don't think so. Not by itself.

In conjunction with lowering the age for UFAs, I've seen people wanting changes to the way players are qualified. Under the expired CBA, any player making less than the league average (current about $1.8 million) has to be offered a 10% raise, regardless of performance. And if the player doesn't like that, they can go to arbitration. Only players have the arbitration option right now, and they usually come out on top. Why? Because of the above reasons. Someone signs an outrageous contract, and other players use that as ammo in arbitration. Or use it in a threat of arbitration.

So how do you fix that situation? I'm not sure, but telling an owner that if they want to keep a player, they have to give them a raise, even if they aren't performing, doesn't really seem fair. And before someone says, "Just let them go then," remember that teams put a lot of time into their drafted players in scouting, development, etc. And some players are late bloomers, so they may be counting on that. I think a qualifying offer of 90% of their current salary is sufficient. If that's unreasonable, then another team will make an offer for them, or the player can go to arbitration.

So let's talk about that. I think both teams and players should be able to elect for arbitration. Each should go into it with an idea of what they want, and the arbitrator picks one side, based on evidence presented in the hearing. And it's binding. Why? Because I think players and owners will come into arbitration with fair contracts, and the arbitrator will pick fairly? No. Not at all. Because the fear for both sides of being bound to a contract they didn't agree to will force them to settle their differences outside of arbitration.

Now, the above issues really are just kind of icing on the cake. The real issue is the salary cap. Or the lack of a salary cap. So where do I stand? A soft cap. Somewhere around $45 million. You can go above it, but you pay a tax. From $45 million to $50 million, you pay 50 cents per dollar you are over, and if you are above $50 million, you pay a dollar for dollar penalty. The extra money would be pooled, along with league TV revenue (the little bit there is) and distributed among teams based on salaries. The higher the salary, the lower your cut. I haven't worked out percentages, but I would guess each team gets between 2.5% (high salary teams) to 3.5% (low salary teams). Maybe even a provision for teams over $50 million not getting their cut - it get's evenly distributed to teams under $50 million.

Now, there's a couple of other items that most aren’t talking about: contraction and shortening of the season. Personally, I think contraction would be a good thing. The product is watered down right now. Teams are forced to play a clutch and grab game because they can't hang with other teams on skill. And look at the regular season attendance of the southern teams: stadiums are empty every night. Compare that to the Wings, Rangers, and the Canadian teams: sell outs, just about every night.

As for shortening the season, I agree. I've seen 70 games mentioned. That's a good number. 50 would be awesome - each game means a lot, but revenue wouldn't flow from that. Of course, player salaries would be lower because of it too.

Well, it's getting late, and I'm out of comments about the CBA. I'm not behind closed doors, but I am pretty sure there's not much progress. Why? Too much talk to the media. Bettman is talking. Goodenow is talking. When they shut up, real progress will be made - when the other side doesn't feel undermined in the media, negotiations can proceed. So if there's a period of a couple of weeks where there's no real news, it may be time.

And if it's around January (when the lack of a paycheck starts to sink in for both owners and players), know it's imminent. At least I think that's when it will be fixed.

And if it's fixed, rejoice. The next four months of the shortened season will be the best season in 10 years!

Categories: Hockey