For the first time since the ’80s, the NHL and NHLPA were able to agree to a new collective bargaining agreement without shutting down the league. This time, the surrounding world shut down the league. But for hockey, going from a self-inflicted wound to just a normally-inflicted wound is something of a step-up. All that awaits is ratification from the owners and a majority of the union.
The new agreement also, possibly for the first time, doesn’t completely fuck the players over. The headline, at least for them, is that they will get to participate in the Olympics in Beijing in 2022 and Milan in 2026. That is something they’ve been bitching about since 2018 when they didn’t go. But as you’ll see, it’s one of a few things that caters only to the top tier of players.
And it’s a question if the NHLPA even needed to use the Olympics as a bargaining chip. The contention of owners in the past was that the league didn’t benefit in any way from NHL players participating at the Games. Which was true. They didn’t get any of the revenue, TV ratings and attendance rarely bumped up in the aftermath, and they weren’t even allowed to use the highlights or market it in basically any way. But they did take on all the risk of injury, such as John Tavares missing the rest of the season after blowing out his knee at the 2014 Sochi Games.
The hope was that it would draw interest and people would then focus on the NHL when it resumed, but that hasn’t been the case for the most part. And come 2022, it’s fair to wonder just how much games taking place at 3 a.m. are going to drive people to cough up $75 to see the Islanders hump a football.
But the parameters have now changed. After an NHL-less 2018 Games, the IOC and IIHF came crawling back to the NHL, and not only offered to restore all that they had taken away before 2018 — charter flights, accommodation, etc. — but would strike a deal with the league on marketing and sharing in revenues. Suddenly this becomes an attractive proposition for the owners, and one the players might not have had to trade off anything for. Especially when you consider the hunger the league has had to grow in China anyway.
And the Olympics only affects about 20 percent of the union. Unless your third or fourth-line winger is from Switzerland or Norway, the Olympics don’t really matter much to him. This isn’t the only thing in the new CBA that won’t make life any easier on that player.
The players did dodge a bullet of sorts with escrow, though that probably won’t stop them bitching about it tout de suite. Next year, escrow on salaries will be capped at 20 percent, even though the league could be out as much as 40 percent of its revenue if fans are still not allowed in buildings whenever next season starts. That escrow cap drops to 14 percent in 2021-2022, when one would hope full buildings will be part of our lives again, and then six percent thereafter.
The 2020-2021 season isn’t likely to start much before Christmas or New Year’s, and maybe in Canada and other select places there can be limited crowds, but it’s a safe bet that the league’s revenue is going to take more than a 20 percent hit.
What will have some players excited is that escrow might go away down the line. When league revenues return to $4.8 billion, what they were projected to be this season before the shutdown, the salary cap will be based on the revenues of the two previous seasons. That will base it far less on projections and much more on an actual number, so there will be less need to withhold salary to even out the 50-50 split. And with a new U.S. TV deal on the horizon in 2022, the NHL could get a boost in returning to that $4.8 billion figure and beyond.
The players also got rid of the over-35 penalty, which saw any player that signed a contract after the age of 35 have his cap hit stay on the books for the length of the contract even if he retired before. This certainly made older players a risk to sign, but players signing deals at 35 or later tend to be of the star-variety, at least in their younger days.
Players also won back their no-trade clauses after being traded. Previously, if a player waived his NTC or was moved before it kicked in on a contract extension, it was gone forever. Now it can be reinstated after a trade, which gives the player back the control he sought in the first place.
Still, there are some losses here. Once again, the players did not even attempt or mention some kind of NBA-style exemption to contracts, like a veteran or mid-level. The current system has squeezed those in the middle of the market. Stars get their money, younger players on entry-level deals are forced into the lineup, but those in-between sometimes are starving for work. Jake Gardiner is an example, as he had to wait until the eve of training camp last fall before getting his deal with the Hurricanes. Every season sees a handful or more of players going to training camps merely on Professional Tryout Offers, which is like baseball’s invite to spring training, while teams try and work out how they can create enough cap space to cram them in.
It would seem antithetical to a players union, or any union, to strive for compliance buyouts of contracts. Those have been a part of the last two CBAs, and they help players. To wit, a player being bought out still gets two-thirds of his money, but it opens up cap space for teams to sign another player. And bought-out players tend to re-sign somewhere else. With a cap staying flat for at least two seasons, finding teams with cap space to spend on free agents is going to be very difficult, or even players hoping for an extension with their current team. Taylor Hall and Alex Pietrangelo will find someone to pay them market value, maybe, but what of the Carl Soderbergs or Mike Hoffmans or Justin Schultzes of the world?
They also didn’t manage to get rid of the “cap recapture” penalty, perhaps the dumbest and most punitive points of the last CBA. It essentially penalized teams for contracts signed under a different set of rules. In the CBA signed in 2005, teams would sign players to very lengthy deals where the salary would bottom out at the end, lowering the average annual value of it and thus the cap hit. Johan Franzen, Marian Hossa, Duncan Keith, Ryan Suter, and Zach Parise are some of the names that signed these deals. But when the CBA of 2013 kicked in, those contracts were penalized if any of those players retired before the end of it. Essentially, the team that signed those players to those deals would see a penalty tacked onto their salary cap of whatever the difference was between the cap hit and the player’s actual salary, for however many years short of the end of the contract the player retired. That’s dizzying, but basically the Predators were staring at a possible $24 million penalty in 2025 if Shea Weber retired then. It made those players basically immovable, which is why you see players like Franzen, Hossa, and previously Chris Pronger on an injured list for eternity. Vancouver is saddled with a $3 million penalty for the next two years thanks to Roberto Luongo retiring. As a Florida Panther. HOCKEY!
Now that penalty is capped at whatever that player’s cap hit was, but could extend as long as needed to make up whatever the signing team “saved” on the salary cap. This should have been eliminated altogether.
But that didn’t seem to matter to the players, who will get their Olympics and their stars paid. That always seems to be their top, and only, priority.