On the surface, this is about Ilya Kovalchuk's contract. What we're really going to learn, however, is if the NHL and the NHLPA can make a deal.
We're two years away from the CBA's conclusion, and the hawks are spreading wings. (Never mind that everyone in a position of power on either side should be fired if there is another stoppage.)
Late Wednesday, Larry Brooks reported in the New York Post that the league has delivered an "ultimatum" to the PA. Unless the terms are accepted, Kovalchuk will be joined in unexpected free agency by Roberto Luongo.
And Marian Hossa might be next.
Key thing to remember: Plenty can change by 5 p.m. ET Friday (or longer, if both the league and the PA extend the deadline into the long weekend).
Why a deal is sensible for NHL
I don't see a problem with the NHL's attempts to change the way these long-term deals are counted against the cap. That's called negotiation, and the NHLPA can make a counter-offer.
The league can't unilaterally impose any such rule without agreement. Threatening the Luongo and Hossa deals is outrageous, punitive and ridiculous - without some kind of newfound smoking gun.
Here's the thing, though: The NHL has a lot more to lose in a second arbitration. Commissioner Bettman won big the first time. The Devils and agent Jay Grossman worked hard to address every concern arbitrator Richard Bloch delivered in that ruling, meeting with the league during the process.
His cap hit went up from $6 million US to $6.67 million and the last five years now total $10 million (70 per cent of which is in the last two seasons) as opposed to $3.3 million.
According to several sources, the PA was preparing for a second grievance if "Kovalchuk II" was rejected, as was expected. Since Bloch didn't specifically outline what was an acceptable contract, the union was ready to take a chance with a different arbitrator.
If I was Donald Fehr, and the NHL threatened all three contracts, I grieve each one. In Fehr's former sport, 1-for-4 sent you to the minors. Here, it's a success, because that one contract becomes the blueprint for all long-term deals.
That's why it's smarter for Bettman to hold his nose in exchange for a closed loophole.
Reason No. 2
At some point, you have to look past the business and examine the product. What good does it do the NHL to have Ilya Kovalchuk in Russia? Kovalchuk obviously wants to stay in North America, or he would already have accepted the offers from drooling KHL executives. The sport is trying to emphasize speed and skill, and he fits the profile.
Second, while Bettman probably isn't thrilled with New Jersey owner Jeff Vanderbeek, he's got to be aware that the Devils clearly feel they need this player. Since their dynasty ended with the 2003 Stanley Cup, they have two playoff victories - none in the past three years.
Stevens, Niedermayer, Daneyko, Holik, Gomez, Gionta, Nieuwendyk - all gone with nothing in return. Martin Brodeur is 38, on the downside of his Hall of Fame career. Zach Parise is an A-list forward, but no one wins with just one of them.
Attendance hasn't been good for years, and hope of the NBA's Nets joining their arena as a permanent tenant ended when the basketball team was bought by a flamboyant gazillionaire.
Other NHL teams won't feel sorry for the Devils (and that's an issue here; they think this organization got away with murder for years), but is it possible New Jersey becomes another headache?
If the commissioner can get his loophole, deliver some adrenaline Pulp Fiction-style to a franchise that desperately needs it and keep Kovalchuk in North America - that's a win.
Why a deal is sensible for NHLPA
For escrow reasons, there is a significant chunk of the rank-and-file that wouldn't be unhappy to see cancelled contracts. But it sets an awful precedent, and you could satisfy those players by taking steps to close the loophole instead of fighting again in the future.
This also presents the opportunity to go for a concession of your own. Is there something else the NHLPA would want in exchange for a new cap formula on long-term deals? Maybe a cap on escrow, like the NBA's CBA? (Unlikely, but you can't shoot a guy for asking.) Maybe it's a change in how teams can walk away from salary arbitration rulings. Maybe it's adding a rule that any player with a no-move/no-trade contract can't even be asked to waive it. (That would make Kelly Hrudey happy.)
There's always something.
And, while there is a lot of hand-wringing about the impressive job Donald Fehr did with the MLBPA, don't forget that when he took over, Marvin Miller had already created a monster.
Right now, the NHLPA is a much weaker animal. It will take a lot of work to build up a battered and uninterested group. While I mentioned above that I'd take my chances if this is more ultimatum than negotiation, a loss would make Fehr 0-for-2 against Bettman. That's a bad start in any sport.
Making a deal is common sense, for now and the future. But, as Jerry Seinfeld once said, the problem with common sense? It's not that common.
Hopefully, this will be the exception.
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