With the discussions of how the Blue Jackets will work on remaking the team this offseason, the CBA has been an elephant in the room that few, if any, have discussed.
With the current agreement set to expire on September 15th, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has been declaring it's business as usual, but it stands to reason that GMs have been considering what a new agreement might mean, even if they aren't talking about it. Scott Howson is almost certainly no exception - so what could the next agreement do to the club's rebuilding plan?
The Salary Cap
With a new CBA, the chances of the salary cap being reduced is a very real possibility - even if it might well go up for the start of free agency.
While the team is poised to shed 17 million in salary at the end of this season, some of that money must be earmarked for players like Nikita Nikitin, Derek Dorsett, and perhaps players like Derek MacKenzie and Darryl Boyce. (To say nothing of their prospective #1 pick). The team will also need to decide how they handle the Steve Mason situation - with the chance of trading his $2.9 million contract slim, a buyout may be the club's only option.
If the cap should go down in early September, making sure the team has a solid cushion of space to absorb possible moves from "maxed out" clubs needing to move players might be a very reasonable strategy. But that scenario also brings up another option.
Contact Amnesty Could Cut Both Ways
More than a few GM and NHL media insiders have speculated that should the new CBA reduce the cap, teams may be given an "amnesty" option for one contract on their books, allowing them to rework a deal into a more friendly structure.
While it's tempting to assume that Columbus would look at Mason (should he still be on the books), the fate of Rick Nash might be closely tied to this provision, should the team still be looking to trade him by that point.
One the one hand, allowing Nash to restructure for a new deal might be a way to make the captain a better tradable asset - especially if teams like the Rangers and Sharks are still interested. Imagine New York using the option to restructure the Brad Richards deal, for example (or perhaps just get rid of the salary millstone that is Wade Redden), and then add Nash under a somewhat more reasonable cap hit?
Restructuring might also expose options to improve the Blue Jackets goaltending - if Vancouver had the ability to restructure Roberto Luongo, might the gold medalist suddenly become available? Or might this make Cory Schneider that much more of a tradable asset?
On the other hand, if the team SHOULD manage to mend fences with Rick Nash (unlikely, at this point, but anything is possible), Nash is still a natural candidate to restructure, perhaps into a deal similar to Jack Johnson's, allowing the team to free up additional cap space for goaltending or the forward corps.
With the NHL's intentions to realign the league currently "off the table", it seems like a no-brainer that both sides in the CBA negotiations will treat the matter as a bargaining chip. Don't be surprised if the CBA leads, directly or indirectly, to a new format for the league and its' playoff structure in time for the 2013-2014 season.
The Jackets have made it clear to the NHL that they need to reduce their travel, and they need a more TV friendly schedule - particularly when it comes to road trips. While the canceled realignment plan kept the team in a fairly "central" division within the "West", it still included plans to reduce West Coast / Western Canada trips in the schedule, meaning less midnight oil and more 7pm starts for Jackets fans.
Worst Case Scenario
Then there is the absolute nightmare - that September 15th passes with no agreement at all.
The immediate impact might be as little as the start of the season being delayed by a week or two if both sides are close, or a nightmare scenario of another lockout - and with it, a cancellation of the all star game, meaning that the franchise and city will have invested a great deal of funds in vain.
The risk of a lockout also threatens the team and the Arena District, particularly after their new lease with the City of Columbus. The lack of revenues, damage to the value of the franchise, and impact to businesses could easily have lasting effects throughout the Columbus economy.
It's unlikely that we will see another lockout - both sides appear to be heading towards the table with reasonably similar goals on most issues - but it's a risk that must be considered, and an area that Jackets fans must pay careful attention to over the next several months.