CHICAGO—The hockey world, with its outstanding issues of unsigned young stars and the spectre of collective bargaining talks, holds its unofficial opening over the next few days in the Windy City.
It’s the site of the NHL-NHLPA Media Tour, where some of the game’s biggest names allow themselves to be poked and prodded by all sorts of media and sponsors, with TV rights-holders and the league’s own NHL Network recording those candid moments for broadcast through the season — moments that are hard to get once the grind of the 82-game season begins on Oct. 2.
Late Wednesday night, the NHL Players’ Association was to hold a meeting with executive director Donald Fehr, laying out the pros and cons of opening the collective agreement two years early in 2020, and risking a lockout, or waiting until 2022 to forge a new deal.
The NHL has already passed on its option to reopen early. The players have until Sept. 15 to decide. These few days could be pivotal as players have a chance to talk face-to-face here while also bringing the debate back to their respective camps.
“Players have to be informed,” Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly said in Toronto. “They want to be a part of the process and as a group get ready for it.”
There are issues on both sides.
The players don’t like how escrow is working. That’s the mechanism whereby the league withholds a percentage of their pay to ensure a 50/50 split of hockey-related revenue. If targets are not met, the players have to pay the owners back through that escrow account. Rarely have targets been met, so players have typically not collected their full paycheque.
But owners might not like how restricted free agency is working, and it’s telling in Chicago. Missing are some of the game’s best and brightest young players. Leaf Auston Matthews — who signed a five-year contract extension in February — is here, but teammate Mitch Marner is not. None of the other rising stars without contracts are in attendance, either, including Brayden Point, Mikko Rantanen, Patrik Laine, Charlie McAvoy, Zach Werenski and Matthew Tkachuk.
These are the players that teams and the league hope to bank on for a long time. It’s a long list of burgeoning superstars coming off three-year entry-level contracts and waiting — as the Leafs’ William Nylander did last year — to sign a new deal.
The issues are related in a connect-the-dots kind of way. The salary cap has risen at a slower rate the past few years because the players have curtailed use of what they call the escalator clause. That allows them to raise the cap by five per cent on top of league projections, opening up more cap room to sign players. It helps that summer’s crop of free agents, but has the countereffect of raising escrow since the escalator only artificially raises expectations of revenue.
Ultimately the players — all of them — have lost more and more of their paycheques. The past few years, the NHLPA has only modestly used the escalator at around one per cent. That’s tightened the salary cap and squeezed free agents, especially for teams with tight budgets.
Restricted free agents are increasingly digging in their heels and using the only leverage they have: withholding their services in hopes of a deal that matches what they believe their talent is worth.
The league initially didn’t want players coming off entry-level deals to have arbitration rights. It was thought when this contract was signed — after the league’s third lockout in 2012-13 — that this would be the best way to control young talent and keep second contracts at an affordable rate. Think the moderate bridge deal P.K. Subban signed with Montreal right after the new deal took hold: two years at an average annual salary of $2.875 million U.S.
But now it’s the league — or at least teams with players in that situation — that wish for arbitration for both sides, to settle these disputes and ensure all players are in camp.
“The NHL wants another opportunity to control its asset. It would be a huge ask if that’s on the table,” said agent Anton Thun.
There are plenty of other issues: the overall growth of the game, what counts as hockey-related revenue, participation in the Olympics, the World Cup of Hockey. For every issue that’s important to the players, there’s one the league could ask for: limits on contract length, even an end to guaranteed contracts.
None seem so pressing, however, that it would be in the players’ interest to reopen the contract early. Meanwhile, talks could continue over three years rather than one.
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“There’s nothing to stop both sides from sitting down with each other and discussing these things,” said Thun. “It really comes down to what both sides are willing to do in terms of trade-offs over the existing three years, and whether they believe those trade-offs are sufficient enough to extend beyond the three years.
“People think there’s magic to this. The magic, in all honesty, is communication.”