PHILADELPHIA — I’ve always believed there’s a lot of “I told you so” about Gary Bettman, who, even when he didn’t, most often claims he did.
That’s what I think is at the heart of the strange soliloquy being waged by the NHL commissioner, who, sort of out of nowhere, tantalizingly dangled the idea of raising the salary cap for next season in October before slipping into his familiar guise last week. The Grinch, indicating to the Board of Governors that such a thing would not happen.
Instead, under the terms of the collective bargaining agreement passed in July 2020, the cap will rise by just $1 million to $83.5 million, making 2023-24 another in a string of seasons in which at least half the league will be. suffocated by a hat. That’s because the massive debt incurred by the NHL Players’ Association during the pandemic won’t be paid off until after this season.
Of course it won’t. We’re told the NHLPA advised agents last spring that the debt wouldn’t be satisfied until after the 2024-25 season. The idea that somehow the debt will come down two years ahead of schedule is a concept based on voodoo economics.
But like a trained gymnast, Batman threw it there before spinning it again. Magic! I can’t quite fathom why, unless it’s to remind people, both in his own corridors and those with the NHLPA, that he immediately foresaw the pain the CBA would cause teams and suggested: Around the deal in December 2020, just five months after it was passed.
Do you remember. Bettman wanted the players, who agreed to a 10 percent deferral and 20 percent reserve cap for 2020-21, to commit another $300 million during the season. That would speed up debt repayment and get the NHL out of the flat cap era faster.
There was certainly interest in the league, but it would also benefit the vast majority of teams and ultimately the vast majority of players. But the NHLPA was not interested in reopening the agreement because the CBA was designed to make the players under contract in 2020-21 as complete as possible. In the NHL, the one-issue escrow hawks, those veterans of long-term deals, carried the day. The arrangement was all about limiting the reserve. It was not about growth. The vast majority of players who would have become free agents during the first three to four years of the agreement were sacrificed to keep existing contracts. The union pyramid was turned on its head.
But that’s what the NHLPA wanted, and that’s what CEO Don Fehr negotiated, and so the union rejected Bettman’s request for an accommodation that would have truly benefited the NHL and the players.
I think this dance was a reminder of that. Fully half the league falls on long-term injured reserve to meet the cap. The system will explode next summer. There was an exit in December 2020, the union chose not to take it.
Now there may be a way out if, as we first suggested in this space two months ago, the league and union agree to settle the $10 million cap raise that is expected over the next three seasons. Instead of the cap increasing by $1 million and then another $4.5 million to $5 million each of the next two seasons, the sides could agree to annual increases of about $3.3 million each of the next three seasons.
But that will lead to negotiations. The league never gives anything away for free. It’s unclear what accommodations Bettman might seek (honestly, doesn’t the league have what it takes), but the NHLPA is unlikely to be able to negotiate anything without a successor in place for the departing Fehr.
Yet here we are. Batman anticipated the crunch of the flat caps ahead of time. He was not alone, but he offered to do something about it. He told you so. It still exists.
The NHL’s interest in adding intradivision games by increasing the schedule from 82 to 84, first reported by ESPN’s Greg Wyszynski, could be the return the union could trade for a smooth cap.
To the NHLPA, that would be the equivalent of getting Ryan Strome for Ryan Spooner.
The Wild’s Ryan Reaves’ horrific open-ice hit on Filip Hronek on Wednesday is legal under current rules. This tells you everything you need to know about the effectiveness of the current rules in protecting players from brain injuries.
Yes, the Red Wings defenseman should have kept his head up. Yes, he should have known Reaves was on the ice, even though #75 never managed to blow anyone out in his one year, more so as a Ranger, than Hronek did.
But the league has an obligation to protect the health of its employees. A union that reflexively contests and appeals suspensions of superiors has a duty to protect its members.
We know now what we didn’t know decades ago. Major contact with the head should be prohibited. If that burdens the big game hunters, so be it. According to the current rules, legal should become illegal.
Finally, I have to admit that when Gerard Gallant said on Friday that “we don’t want him to block too many,” referring to Artemi Panarin’s shot blocking in Vegas a few weeks ago, all I could think about was one it was something else. Rangers coach Marian Gaborik was benched in the third period of Game 5 of the 2012 conference finals against the Devils for failing to block a shot.
Game lost, series lost.
Can’t think of who it could be though.