The dueling statements came out Friday night and the reaction was: "Oh God, not this again."
Now, I'm a pessimist when it comes to labour. I assume there's going to be a stoppage of some kind next season. But, if you take a really hard look at the big picture, you can see the landscape in 2012 is very different from 2004.
Eight years ago, any reporter could stick a notepad/recorder/microphone in any player's face, say the letters "CBA" and receive a lengthy answer about how the owners were exaggerating their problems, there would never be a cap, etc., etc. It was an angry time.
The NHLPA's mix is changed. In 2004, there were still many players who'd been through the tumultuous 90s. That decade featured two bitter work stoppages that led to enormous (and deserved) gains for players.
Most of them are gone, now. This generation is pretty content with life in the NHL. And why not? You can make a great living in the game you love. The average salary before the lockout was $1.8 million. Now, it's about $500,000 higher. They're not really interested in Year of Darkness 2. They want to play.
Example I: Behind the scenes, the NHL and the NHLPA are battling over the $25 million the league gets from the city of Glendale to run the Phoenix Coyotes. In 2004, every player would have had an opinion about this, and been happy to share it publicly. In 2012, you don't hear anything.
Example II: The NHLPA's release cited the imbalanced conferences and schedule issues as reasons for their refusal to consent to the proposed realignment. Away from the rhetoric, you know what the players and agents said? It was pretty much about the postseason.
"When we talked about it in our room," one player representative said, "that dominated the conversation. Our guys were asking about being in a [conference] with eight teams and having less of a chance to make the playoffs."
What about the schedule?
"Oh yeah," he said. "The schedule, too." Basically, a throw-in. We almost started laughing.
That was pretty typical. Why did it come up, then? Even though the players may not be as militant as they once were, they've hired some strong people to look out for their best interests.
You know about Donald Fehr. There's also Richard Rodier (NHLPA point man on the Glendale money dispute, not on Commissioner Bettman's Hanukkah card list) and Don Zavelo, who formerly worked for the US-based National Labour Relations Board. (Zavelo sent out the memos to players and agents detailing the objections with re-alignment.)
Clearly, ownership thinks its resolve is stronger. The last lockout proved that. It's what you do with the knowledge that matters. You can wield the sledgehammer or you can negotiate a deal. There are going to be some brutal discussions as part of this process. Why give the players a reason to stiffen now?
I understand why the league is upset. They worked hard to get re-alignment done. Teams accepted because they realized it was important to the majority. The NHL feels it did offer the NHLPA a chance to have input two months before approval, but never received anything until the last minute -- which is why it used the word "unreasonable" in its release.
Nevertheless, the CBA says the players have a right to veto. As much as anyone who dislikes Donald Fehr can say, "He wasn't going to agree to anything we wanted, no matter what," the truth is they don't know because there wasn't any negotiation on the terms of the re-alignment after it passed.
Players, agents and NHLPA sources sure gave the impression that if the NHL tossed out some kind of postseason olive branch, there was room to compromise on the schedule. What do they care about? Competing for the Cup. That's what matters. And, they know that great playoff performances mean better contracts.
Take that away, and they're going to be unhappy.
They can deal with the schedule. Players play. (And the league does try to make it as fair as possible. Vancouver, always proactive about creating the best possible grid, met with the NHL about next season right after the Board of Governors approved the re-alignment plan in December. Florida, also with legit concerns, was invited to meet last week.)
If the NHLPA said "No" to that? The NHL could come out and say, "You know what, we addressed their number one concern and still got nowhere." One of the great lessons about negotiation is that you can win, while still making the other side feel it won. That didn't happen here.
The thing that really surprises me about this is how mad Commissioner Bettman would get in 2004 when labour talk overshadowed big events. The angriest he's ever been at me came during those playoffs when I asked him about it during a quickie in-game interview. Then, he cut short his annual Stanley Cup State of the Game address when all the questions were about a lockout.
Now, we're going down that road again -- in what could be a fantastic season.30 THOUGHTS
1. One exec said something very interesting: "There is less interest among teams for expanding the playoffs than you think." I take him at his word, since he has more access than I do, obviously. Surprising, because the few I talk to always seem to be thinking of proposals. Here's one, from a GM: "You finish the season on a Saturday, with all 30 teams playing. Then, on the Monday and Tuesday, you can split up the four 4th-place vs. 5th-place games. Make them a one-game playoff or a best-of-three if you want." Love that. Don't see how that would be a bad thing for the NHL. Imagine the interest.
2. The argument against this is: What if the fifth-place team is way behind the fourth? Answer: Let the GMs decide a maximum points differential. Two? Four? That would add interest, because imagine a fifth-place team needs a win to get inside that margin on the final day of the season. All of a sudden, a nothing game means something.
3. Don't believe for a second Roberto Luongo didn't want to play in Boston. Do think Alain Vigneault believed, with his goalie's confidence riding high, the coach was going to keep him away from the scene of the Stanley Cup crime, whether Luongo liked it or not. If Luongo's mad about it, he'll play great against everyone else, which doesn't hurt Vigneault any.
4. Guess this wouldn't be a good week to run the interviews we did last season on the long-time friendship between former Salt Lake Golden Eagles Vigneault and Claude Julien. Both men said no matter what happened in the Cup Final, their friendship was "bigger than this."
5. One of the reasons Brad Marchand was suspended for five games is that with all of the concern about hits to the head, the NHL absolutely does not want "low-bridging" to creep back into the game. It's so dangerous.
6. Some shots at Scott Howson for waiting until now to let go of Scott Arniel. Look, the Blue Jackets knew their season was over early. But, with Jeff Carter injured and James Wisniewski suspended so quickly into the season, Howson felt Arniel was owed the opportunity to show what he could do with a full team. Lot of coaches have been treated much worse.
7. Why now? You reach a time where you have to try and build some momentum, if for no other reason than give fans reason to buy tickets. Sounds like the relationship between the players and Arniel was poor. Things weren't going to get better without some kind of change.
8. Okay, let's do some trade stuff. When Bob Murray exploded last week, it was very calculated. He was telling his players, "If you want to stay together, you'd better have a Herculean second half of the season." And he was telling his fans, "If that doesn't happen, we know you won't buy tickets next season. So we'll change the core."
9. Other teams say the Ducks are not interested in a rebuild. If deals are made, they will be modeled on the Flyers from last summer -- adding pieces to make a run now. One exec told me he thinks the price for Ryan Getzlaf (and more on him in a moment) will be two roster players, an A-level prospect and a first-rounder. The two roster players would be necessary to offset the salary, and one of them would have to be significant. It's a high price.
10. Now, is Getzlaf really available? Opinions are mixed. Some teams say not until the draft, at the earliest. Others say only if Ducks get a great offer, or are convinced Getzlaf will not re-sign there when he becomes a UFA after next season (assuming free agency rules remain the same).
11. Murray said Teemu Selanne and Saku Koivu are his untouchables, since they have no-trade clauses. But, there is real doubt he would deal Corey Perry or Cam Fowler. Bobby Ryan will be the interesting one, because, when he was available last month, some of the offers were reasonable.
12. Buffalo: Was surprised to hear the Sabres mentioned, because Darcy Regier generally doesn't make major moves during the season. However, he's apparently considering it now. Derek Roy's name has come up and there is some interest, although I heard it before he was injured last week. Roy has a manageable contract, one more year with a cap hit of $4 million (but an actual salary of $5.5 million).
13. Other Sabres who could be available: Drew Stafford, although a new four-year, $16 million deal makes it tougher, and Paul Gaustad. You'd think Gaustad would be a great depth add for a playoff team, since he's eighth in the NHL in faceoff percentage. His $2.3 million cap hit ($2.5 million salary) might mean that if he does go, it's closer to the deadline.
14. Sometimes you forget about this, but Buffalo's actual cash payroll is close to $80 million for this season. (That includes Shaone Morrisonn in the AHL and whatever they're contributing to Ales Kotalik overseas.) No wonder Terry Pegula is so frustrated.
15. Spent the last couple of weeks asking a few goaltender coaches and opponents about Ryan Miller. Other goalies really like Miller's game and are surprised by his struggles. What is seen? First, his hands don't seem as quick as they usually are. Second, he looks shocked when pucks go by him. "That says to me that he's not reading the play as well as he needs to," said one former goalie.
16. One other difference is that Miller liked "playing to contact." He'd get high in his crease (or just outside) and bump those who were standing nearby. He's not doing it as much now. Wonder if that has anything to do with the Lucic/Tootoo stuff.
17. Meanwhile, Henrik Lundqvist: "His focus around the net is as good as I've ever seen," said one opposing goaltending coach. "He puts his weight forward, arms wide and you can't see anything to shoot at."
18. Even before Jordan Staal and James Neal joined Pittsburgh's All-Star injury list, there was word the Penguins were going to try to add a top-six forward. Them and everyone else, I guess.
19. One thing that really helped Krys Barch with the league was that he'd used the "banana peel" line before, at Zach Stortini. Barch also testified that the late Derek Boogaard used the same line on him when Barch gave up early in a fight.
20. Now, you may ask, why give him a game, then? Think the league has to be sensitive as microphones creep closer to the action. All you have to do is watch the agendas surrounding Randy Cunneyworth's hire.
21. Couple of notes about Cunneyworth: Apparently, he rarely yells at players. "What he'll do is wait for you to come back to the bench and say, 'Why did you do that?' If you keep doing it, you won't play."
22. As a Penguin, he had a corduroy jacket he wore -- a little too much, apparently. Teammates grabbed it one day during a practice and cut it up right on the ice.
23. Cunneyworth also made a slight tweak to the Canadiens' forecheck. Previously, if a forward chipped the puck into the offensive zone, he was supposed to be the second man in to pressure the defence. However, that man was getting rubbed out, since contact was legal because he was playing the puck. That led to some extra room for a breakout. Now, the player dumping it in is supposed to remain higher, and let the other two forwards charge ahead.
24. Line of the week, from several Red Wings: "Who is our second-best player? Ian White." Why? "Because he's Nick Lidstrom's partner."
25. The Wings also laughed at the reasons for Jiri Hudler's resurgence: "Contract year, of course." In a serious moment, they said Hudler is a much more determined player, in better shape and as one added, "He may not like to hear this, but it's hard to go from the KHL to the NHL."
26. On Valtteri Filppula's success: "He's been given more opportunity," Henrik Zetterberg said. "He's getting confidence from that." Filppula's getting an extra half-minute per game on the power play, up from seventh among Detroit forwards to fifth. He's also getting the fewest offensive zone starts among Wings forwards and is facing the highest quality of competition. (Credit to "Behind the Net" for that info.)
27. Jimmy Howard said the birth of his son, James Russell Howard IV, made a huge difference in his play. "Things that used to make me angry don't upset me any more."
28. Understand that Calgary fans were frothing for change after the 9-0 loss to Boston, but I always remember a conversation with Cliff Fletcher very early in my career. He said the worst time to make moves is right after an emotional win or loss, because you're not thinking clearly. (The one possible exception: if you've already decided to do something, and that just clinches it.)
29. There are times in a season where a coach can really win over his players with a simple move. Brian Elliott shut out the Avalanche on Saturday, which would normally guarantee another start. But he will sit, because Ken Hitchcock knows how badly Jaroslav Halak wants to play in Montreal. Players notice these things and appreciate it when organizations pay attention.
30. Follow-up to last week's blog about Seattle: some very interesting feedback. Couple of people said to me that if Phoenix can't be fixed, the solution is "not obvious." Another said, "It is all about arenas, and who gets one first." Several people mentioned Portland, where the franchise probably would have gone if it wasn't for Steve Ellman/Wayne Gretzky in 2000. Right now, there probably isn't a right answer.
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