The NHL surprised the world by proposing a new CBA deal in the last 24 hours. The news, first broke by Eklund (@Eklund) early this morning, and since verified by Bill Daly, is a positive sign that an end to the process is in sight. Details are sketchy, but it appears as if the NHL made some tweaks to the proposal offered earlier this month when the owners and players met directly. The NHL has retained the $300 million in make whole payments and relented slightly on contract issues, allowing for a 10% variance in salary from year to year and upping the max length from 5 years to 6 while retaining a max length of 7 years for re-signing a player already on your roster. James Mirtle has a good article here detailing the changes.
Does this mean a deal is in sight? It should, but whether it does or not is another matter. While this entire process has been embarrassing for the league and players and beyond frustrating for fans, Don Fehr has managed to continuously improve the offer the NHL is making to the players. Furthermore, he has done this without offering much of any proposal, getting the NHL to bargain against itself.
That said, there are still plenty of pitfalls left. First and foremost is the NHLPA's threat of sending a disclaimer of interest. It's too early to tell if this threat prompted the NHL to make this latest offer, but the timing sure is coincidental. That said, this offer doesn't take that threat off the table. The NHLPA has until January 2nd to file such a disclaimer. The NHL reportedly wants to have a deal in place by January 10th. It's still possible that the NHLPA will file the disclaimer of interest as a final tactic to improve the deal the players get. The wisdom of this step is debatable, but given the path these negotiations have taken the possibility of such an action is still quite possible.
There is also the impending sale of the Phoenix Coyotes to Craig Jamison. Mr. Jamison has completed the process of negotiating and signing a new arena lease which includes a provision whereby the City of Glendale will pay Mr. Jamison to run the Jobing.com arena. Assuming that Mr. Jamison has the resources to complete the sale of the franchise, something that a few folks doubt, his status as an owner could throw a wrench in to the works. Greg Wyshynski published an interesting article a few days ago, noting that Mr. Jamison stands to make a profit this year if he were to finalize his acquisition of the Coyotes and the NHL were to cancel the season.
The Phoenix Coyotes wouldn't be the only team that would receive funds to manage an arena. The exact numbers are unknown, but it's possible that other similar teams, perhaps even the Carolina Hurricanes, whose parent company, Gale Force Holdings, operates the PNC Arena for the Centennial Authority, could be in a similar position of it quickly becoming more profitable not to play a season. Given that it takes a two-thirds majority for the owners to approve a new CBA as few as eight teams could scuttle a season if they feel it is financially more viable to cancel the season. Furthermore, a few teams desirous to not play a season could join forces with remaining hard line owners who want a more owner friendly deal to scuttle the season. The options are endless, and if it were Survivor I'm sure it would make for great TV.
Beyond that there are still further potential obstacles. Don Fehr has been attempting to negotiate an agreement while leaving items such as transition rules, Olympic participation, and salary for this season for later. The problem with this tactic is that those items are germane to completing a master agreement; you can't really have the former without the latter and the Owners know this. Leaving these items outstanding and then forcing owners to take what the PA wants after a deal has been announced as complete to the fans could surely upset a number of owners.
Furthermore there is also the Hamrlik Problem for the NHLPA. Roman Hamrlik has been publicly outspoken about his desire to have had a vote on the NHL's prveious proposal. How many other players, particularly those bottom 6 wingers and bottom half blue liners with limited careers, are not far from joining in that chorus? A fractured PA, which is something that some owners seem to want more than anything else, has the potential of mucking up the waters. It could embolden hard line owners at a time when a deal is at hand while at the same time push the PA to look to the courts for redress instead of negotiation.
So, with all these potential roadblocks, why would I say we're heading down the stretch? Well, first I miss John Forslund calling games, but second, and perhaps most important, the league and the players are rapidly approaching a make or break deadline. If the league starts January 15th and plays a 48 game schedule that ends on the previously identified last day of the season of April 13th teams will need to play 5 games every 9 days, well above levels even in Olympic seasons. To get down to one game every two days the end of the season would need to get pushed back by about a week, which means potential changes to the date of the draft and the start of free agency. If the NHL starts on the January 21st day that's been floated around today on twitter then you're looking at the regular season ending at the end of April, with who knows what impact to the playoffs, draft, and the start of free agency.
The fact is in two weeks we will have an answer one way or the other. Either there will be a new CBA and the season will be starting shortly or there will be no season. Bruce Garrioch tweeted earlier today that the owners have no stomach for another lost season. I'm sure there is some reticence to such a prospect, but I'm not sure I believe it as strongly as Mr. Garrioch has stated it. It also wouldn't be the first time that a piece of information that benefited the players came from a Garrioch source. Regardless, in two weeks we will have an answer. Given the minor distance between the two sides this answer should be the signing of a new CBA and training camps starting. Given the lunacy that has seemingly dominated this process the once ludicrous outcome of canceling a second season in eight years is no longer as impossible as once believed. Either way, this ride is coming to an end, which may be bad for twitter, but good for fans.