Thoughts on the NHL's Opening CBA Salvo

I'm a hockey blogger.

I do it because I am a passionate fan of the Columbus Blue Jackets, and operating a blog is a way to express myself, especially so given the fact I live in a Canadian province that features mostly Bruins and Canadiens fans.

Most of the time the content I like myself and my writers to focus on is the "fun stuff". The transactions, the hirings/firings, the community stuff. Sometimes, however, we need to talk about the ugly side of the sport.

The business side.

The side of the game where three letters combine to give any hockey person the willies.


As most of you know, the current CBA is set to expire. The current version of the agreement was agreed upon in 2005, but it took a whole year without hockey for the document to be created. One thing is near-certain, and that is that nobody wants another lockout, especially only seven years after the NHL previously shut down operations.

What prompted me to finally comment on the new CBA storyline was a post by Harrison Mooney, which can be found over on Puck Daddy. The heart of the story is the five requirements offered up by the NHL that they would like to see implemented in the new CBA, as originally reported by Renaud Lavoie of RDS. Here are those five points:

1. Reduce players' hockey-related revenues to 46% from 57 %.

2. 10 seasons in the NHL before being eligible for unrestricted free agency.

3. Contracts limited to 5 years.

4. No more salary arbitration.

5. Entry-level contract are 5 years long instead of 3.

Before I comment on those five "pillars" of the CBA negotiations, I feel I should say that this is only the first salvo fired from the NHL toward the NHLPA, in what looks to be a protracted, ugly war of attrition.

The first one is a biggie, and represents a number that will be debated until the end of negotiations. In simple terms, it represents the player's cut of league revenue from the sport itself. For the players, this means one thing- pay cut.

The second one isn't so much of a big deal- the current age for unrestricted free agency is 27. That means that if a player joins the league as a fresh draftee, 18 years old, he has nine years before he is elegble for unrestricted free agency. Not every player does join the NHL at 18 obviously, but each year more and more young players are filling up roster spots on NHL rosters, and are receiving huge paydays on the open market. This new clause, if you will, would allow teams to hang on to their young stars for longer, if only by a year or two.

The third statement is massive, and will likely be one of the more hotly-contested items in the negotiations. At present, most of the big name players who are signing new contracts are being offered deals with huge terms- some in the neighborhood of ten-plus years. This is so the year-by-year cap hit is smaller, while maximizing the dollars paid to the player. In terms of salary cap circumvention, this is the most commonly seen variant. Holding teams to a maximum of five years per contract would force the teams to pay the players more per season, reducing the number of high-priced contracts a team could possess. If nothing else, five year max deals would make for a more exciting July 1st, as there would be more players available, more often on the open market.

The fourth item is something that I see as an attempt by the NHL to reduce their offseason workload, and nothing more. Salary arbitration is a valuable tool for players who have exceeded expectations, or who get shafted by their squads when it comes time to come to terms on a new deal. It's a third-party process that uses due diligence to apply a value to a player, to ensure he earns what he is due. Eliminating this process (which is only utilized by a small percentage of players on a yearly basis) would be unfair to the handful of players who deserve to be earning market value, but are offered less by their club.

The last point is one that I am in absolute favor of. Extending the entry-level conract, or ELC from three to five years would have multiple benefits. On one hand, young stars who break into the league at 18 won't be receiving top dollar at 21 anymore, cashing in on stupid expensive contracts long before they hit their prime. Additionally, these young stars won't be rushed into the NHL if they sign their ELC at 18, 19 or 20. At present, if a young player is signed and plays more than nine games in the NHL, a season is "burned" off his contract if he is later returned to junior. If the ELCs are five years, teams have two additional years of development and evaluation, the extra time allowing them to truly evaluate what they have in a young player.

All of these points seem to have a similar theme- reduce the amount of money being paid to the players. The players that would be hurt the most are the guys who are 21-27 years old. If you go with the old adage that an NHLer peaks at 28-30 years old, the argument can be made that the guys 21-27 who are currently getting major contracts will now have to work harder to earn top dollars, or at very least wait longer.

As long as the salary cap continues to climb, players will earn more money. If the NHL gets their way, or at least a portion of what they are negotiating for, the players will have to earn their contracts in a different way- earn less over a longer period on an ELC, get a decent second contract, and after ten years in the league cash in on the open market.

It will be interesting to see how far the NHL will have to back off of this first set of demands. For a first salvo, it represented a full broadside. How the NHLPA reacts to this first round will dictate what direction the negotiations will take. At first blush, my only thought is I hope we have NHL hockey in October.

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