The NHL and the Players' Association are about to resume bargaining, inspiring hope that the lockout may finally come to an end.
The New York Times reports that the two sides met on Sunday, Dec. 30 to discuss the league's latest proposal, which the union received the Thursday prior. After conference calls on Saturday and the in-pesron meeting on Sunday, the two sides are expected to reopen bargaining sessions beginning on New Year's Eve.
This is certainly progress compared to the state of things on Dec. 13. That was the last time the players and owners formally negotiated, only for the two sides to leave the table with irreconcilable differences.
Before the league submitted its latest offer, there was no timetable for the league and the union to meet again. That's a reason for optimism.
Then again, let's be realistic here. The two sides are talking again, but what, if any, substantial gains were made?
"The weekend talks did not involve player representatives or owners," The Times reported. "Later Sunday, the union held internal meetings and was believed to be preparing a counteroffer."
There is both good news and bad in this caveat.
First of all, a counteroffer means that the union feels this proposal is worth discussing. What might seem like a sign of dissatisfaction is, in fact, the exact opposite. A counteroffer is not a rejection of the league's proposal, but an outline of the union's position so that the two sides can find a middle ground and return to play.
On the other hand, that first line puts a damper on the advances outlined. These recent discussions have not included the major players on both sides of the negotiations, and therefore, must be taken with a grain of salt.
The player reps and owners have not accomplished much when they've spoken so far; we don't have any signs that this time is going to be any different.
In addition, it appears as though the two sides are still pretty far apart on some of the biggest issues on the table.
Again from The Times:
A key point of contention could be the response from Donald Fehr, the union’s executive director, on the N.H.L.’s proposed reduction of the salary cap from $70.2 million a team for the remainder of the current season to $60 million for 2013-14.
Now that is a significant sticking point: a 14.5-percent cut in the salary cap on just a single season's notice.
In order to gauge the impact as such a reduction, let's use the Minnesota Wild as an example.
Before the lockout started, the Wild locked up Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to a pair of 13-year, $98 million contracts, with cap hits of a little more than $7.5 million per year.
Those deals were meant to form a strong foundation in Minnesota for years to come. Parise and Suter are cornerstone players, so that purpose is still valid. However, it also means that the Wild will be devoting more than a quarter of their cap space to just two players.
Parise and Suter come out of this just fine. Legally, their contracts are set, so they'll continue to make their money without issue. It's the 21 guys Minnesota puts around its stars who will suffer.
Some quick math: Twenty-three players with a $70.2 million salary cap averages out to $3.05 million per player. With a $60 million cap, that average drops to $2.61 million per player.
Now, look at the Wild, with $15 million already committed to Parise and Suter each year. $45 million split between 21 guys comes out to $2.14 million per player, nearly a million less than the old average.
With stars demanding big contracts on the free-agent market, such cap cuts mean the middle class of players shrinks and more guys end up making the league minimum.
The cap is likely going to decrease in the new collective bargaining agreement, but Fehr is unlikely to amenable to such a large reduction. Considering he has not yet spoken in this most recent round of negotiations, there's no way to know how he'll respond to such a stingy proposal.
That said, it's unlikely that the two sides are on completely different wavelengths on this issue. After all, the union is willing to consider the league's proposal.
Even so, Bruce Garrioch of the Ottawa Sun has news that we can unequivocally get excited about:
My sources say owners have privately informed Bettman cancelling the season is not an acceptable option.— Bruce Garrioch (@SunGarrioch) December 28, 2012
Let's combine this ultimatum with what we learned from The Times.
The owners, unwilling to lose an entire NHL season, made an overture to reopen talks with the Players' Association. After discussing the details of the league's proposal, the union prepared its own counteroffer to bring to the negotiation table. The key players from each side will resume bargaining in earnest, and at least one side is committed to saving the season.
According to The Times, if the two sides settle things by the Jan. 15 deadline, that would allow the NHL to start a 48-game season sometime around Jan. 19.
On the one hand, this round of negotiations has only just begun, and nothing has actually been accomplished yet.
But for the first time during the lockout, there is substantial evidence that the two sides are serious about coming to an agreement and there is a clear path to salvaging the season. After weeks of unproductive lockout news, we finally have reason to hope.