Winners and losers of the NHL’s new CBA


Remember salad bars?

Nobody likes everything at the salad bar. Grape tomatoes, for example. Little marbles of acidic goo that I wouldn’t even consider for aesthetic adornment. Unless you’re in Vegas, there’s a finite number of bins and tubs at the salad bar. That those grape tomatoes take up valuable real estate that could otherwise be dedicated to, say, more bacon bits … well, we lack the words to define this outrage.

The NHL’s collective bargaining agreement is like a salad bar. Some items are more palatable than others for the owners and the players.

“Everybody can find at least one, if not more, things that they would like to see different in the agreement that was reached, and there are probably some things in there they don’t like,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said. “But when you’re negotiating a collective bargaining agreement, and with the number of component parts that we were dealing with, if you look at the agreement as a whole, you really just can’t pick at any one part and say, ‘That’s not good, I don’t like it.’ You’ve got to look at the whole body of work.”

As a whole body of work, the owners and players did some incredible heavy lifting to carry this across the finish line, not only securing a six-year CBA extension but a “return to play” protocol with it. We’re still processing the fact that these were ratified last Friday, and that there wasn’t some 11th-hour quibble that derailed the talks and left us staring at an empty lectern until 5 a.m. waiting for an announcement.

(OK, there wasn’t a lectern at all this time. An empty room on a Zoom call, let’s say.)

As the CBA plays out, there will be good and bad, innovations and flaws, fixes and loopholes. But after processing it for a few days and speaking to sources on both sides around the league, here are the winners and losers of the new CBA:

Winner: Pandemic pressure

The word was “crisis.” It was heard behind the scenes from the owners and the players. It was how NHLPA chief Don Fehr defined the conditions that led to an expedited deal, allowing both for the potential completion of this season and six years of labor peace: “All of us I think recognized the singular nature of the crisis and the necessity to persevere until we got it done,” he said.

The COVID-19 pandemic changed the math, shifted the landscape and forced the owners to capitulate on major issues and get a deal done.

This negotiation was always tracking to be one of the smoother ones in Bettman’s tenure. Pre-pandemic, the financial system was paying dividends to the teams, revenues were climbing (and would climb more with a new U.S. rights deal and the Seattle expansion windfall) and there was no overbearing issue that was going to cause the owners to step on the collective neck of the players. But then the crisis happened, and the NHL and the players went from careful negotiation to a race for survival.

The M. Night Shyamalan twist to the 2005 lockout was that a financial system linked to revenue falls apart when there isn’t any revenue. This year, the players faced an escrow hit between 60% and 70% if the season remained dormant. The owners faced a salary cap that would have dropped to $65 million in 2020-21, with the only remedy being a nuclear option tucked way into player contracts that could have led to salary reductions or contract cancellations.

They needed to work together, not only for a “return to play,” but for a path out of this financial abyss. And thus, in crisis mode, they found the best one they could.

“This is probably not something that a lot of people are going to call a perfect agreement. A lot of people are going to find faults with one thing or another. That’s always the case. And I’m pretty sure there’s going to be unanticipated events and perhaps even unintended consequences. But I do think this agreement meets the challenge,” Fehr said, “and there’s a lot in this agreement, I think, players can be proud of.”

Loser: Player leverage

Back in April, I wrote about how NHL players had unprecedented leverage in these negotiations due to the pandemic. I wasn’t wrong, as was evidenced by their wins within the new CBA. But I overestimated how much leverage they had, as was evidenced by the fact the salary cap system very much still exists.

There are two reasons they didn’t actually have that much of an upper hand. The first one is that this wasn’t an open CBA. If the players had fought to get rid of the salary cap, and the owners said “not a chance,” there were two more seasons covered by the current agreement. The salary cap would have crashed to the mid-60s and the owners would have locked out the players in 2022.

“Now was not the time to raise that issue. Now was the time to stabilize the industry and mitigate the damage,” a players’ source said.

That’s the other reason: the pandemic. The uncertainty over this season, next season — and whispers about it being much fewer than 82 games is getting stronger behind the scenes — and seasons after that put a priority on steadying the ship rather than plotting a new course.

Winner: Spouses and partners

The thing about negotiating a new CBA when players are stuck at home in quarantine is that the people they’re stuck with might have some input on the process. Perhaps that’s why the wives and partners of players made out better in this negotiation than some might say the actual players did.

There’s the “House Hunters” clause, wherein a player and his spouse or partner get round-trip business class air travel to search for a home after being acquired by a team, and then one-way business class air travel to move there. (No word if they’re shown three properties and then have to select one, per “House Hunters” rules.) Plus, their baggage fees are covered!

Also, spouses are now “entitled to the same class of air travel as the player, provided that they are traveling with the player.” It’s entirely possible spouses and partners got more out of the new CBA than the owners did.

Loser: The next two free-agent classes

The NHL free-agent class of 2020 joins every other class of 2020 in having its life-changing moments ruined by a pandemic.

As I’ve mentioned in this space before, my heart goes out to Taylor Hall, who has been waiting years to be the belle of the free-agent ball, only to find out that the gala will be held in the conference room at a Holiday Inn near the airport. He said he wanted something long term, but given the flat salary cap next season and probably the season after it, what’s the sense of that? If he wants to leave Arizona, he should go someplace where he can win for two seasons, and then hopefully the market corrects.

But Hall, Torey Krug, Alex Pietrangelo, Braden Holtby and others are going see a different landscape this offseason. And then in 2021: Alex Ovechkin, Tuukka Rask, Patrik Laine, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Dougie Hamilton, Gabriel Landeskog, Frederik Andersen, Jordan Binnington. You figure teams will move heaven and earth for the big-ticket players, but wow, is it going to be a challenge for the next tier down.

Still, as Fehr told us: “It’s going to be tough, but if the cap had crashed to the mid-60s, it would have been a lot worse.” What’s the word for something that’s a silver lining but also not all that sterling?

Winner: Variance

The term Bettman uses is “cash over cap,” meaning the actual money being earned by a player vs. what that player’s cap hit was in a given season. It was a loophole that was exploited rather hilariously by the owners who created the system, like when Marian Hossa‘s base salary with the Blackhawks went from $7.9 million in 2015-16 down to $1 million in 2017-18, where it would have stayed for the last four seasons of his career had he not retired in 2017.

That variance was addressed in the 2013 CBA, as contracts could have no more than 35% fluctuation year-over-year and contain no year that was worth less than 50% of the highest year. In his new deal, Sergei Bobrovsky‘s highest contract year is $12 million and his lowest is $6 million, for example.

Variance was back on the table in this CBA as well. “The one that got talked more about than any other on our side of the table was variability of contracts, and how our current rules did have a contributing effect on the escrow burden that the players were dealing with on a year-to-year basis,” deputy commissioner Bill Daly told Sportsnet.

In the end, the players got their escrow capped and didn’t lose contract variance, despite the owners’ desire to have it flattened. Front-loaded contracts in any “immediately adjacent years” can’t exceed 25% variance with the first year of that contract, and any year of the contract can’t exceed 60% variance from the highest year of the deal. It’s a tweak, and not a defeat.

Loser: Salary growth

With the salary cap flat next season and probably beyond, salary growth is going to be stagnant. Even with the revenue drain, the league could have artificially nudged the cap ceiling up until it was linked again to revenue, when revenues exceed $4.8 billion again.

But a flat cap for multiple seasons would be an anchor dragging down some segments of the NHLPA, depressing the earning potential of the rank and file while the stars still get theirs.

Puck Pedia had a great piece on some of the nuances of the CBA, including a bit about how the 10% salary deferral next season — to avoid 20% going into escrow — is going to work out for players who received bonuses on July 1.

McDavid received a $13 million signing bonus, and would have a $1 million base salary next season. According to the CBA rules, there’s a mechanism allowing players with “insufficient salary” to defer all of the base salary if necessary. “In the case of Connor McDavid, that would suggest he’s likely to defer all of his $1M base salary he’ll earn in 20-21. However, even with deferring all of that, he’d still only defer 7.1% of his 2020-21 compensation,” they wrote. Now that’s foresight.

Loser: Signing bonus reform

This was another thing the owners wanted to attack in the next CBA that was simply overwhelmed by the volume of other issues on the table. Which means if another player wants the John Tavares Special — where around 92% of his seven-year deal with the Toronto Maple Leafs was paid in signing bonus money, making it buyout-proof — go on with your bad self.

Winners: Team Canada vs. Team USA

While there are absolutely no guarantees on when the NHL will return to the Olympics, given the uncertainty around this global pandemic and the next entry on this list, having participation in 2022 and 2026 as part of the CBA means we’re closer than we’ve been since 2014 to seeing it happen.

That means we’re closer to seeing Team USA finally unleash its newest generation of starsAuston Matthews, Jack Eichel, Seth Jones, Quinn Hughes, Connor Hellebuyck and friends — on a Canadian team that gains Connor McDavid but loses up to six defensemen from its 2016 World Cup team. Let’s go.

Loser: The IOC

The cultural impact of the 2018 Olympic men’s hockey tournament was relative to that of a mosquito flying into the hull of an aircraft carrier. Which is to say the IOC quickly realized it needs the NHL to move the needle on Olympic hockey. Now that Olympic participation has been collectively bargained and the hype begins, the IOC has no choice but to make some of the promotional and marketing concessions that the league has kindly asked for in the past.

Who knows what the Olympics are going to look like in two years? They need to maximize attention and revenue potential. Having the pros there does that.

Winner: Gary Bettman

It’s only natural that Bettman, who gets more blame than he deserves when things don’t work in the NHL, is now getting the lion’s share of the praise for what was a very collaborative deal with the players made under duress. But when the bar is set at a fairly low level — “Did the NHL cancel another season over a labor dispute?” — it’s understandable that Bettman is getting praised outside the hockey bubble as the commissioner who got his spot back into competition while striking a labor peace accord. If all goes well, it’s going to be an important chapter in his legacy.

Losers: The owners

Like any CBA, we’ll best understand the winners and losers a few years into this thing. That’s especially true with this deal, as we wait to see how the NHL and pro sports in general react to the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. But on its surface, the players compiled a series of small victories and managed to cap escrow, which was their flagship issue. Does this happen without a pandemic? Hard to say, but based on the relative track records of the owners and players, we’d say it wouldn’t have.

Under the circumstances, everyone did the best they could. The players might have just done a little better.

Jersey fouls

Congratulations to the New York Islanders for signing super goalie prospect Ilya Sorokin. Condolences for the image his agent tweeted:

I realize the Islanders’ logo is supposed to be a part of the text image rather than an actual poorly Photoshopped jersey … but it’s placement makes it impossible not to see it as a poorly Photoshopped jersey. Is it too much to ask for a little rotation and perspective warp?

Three things about the NHL bubbles

1. The Mark Messier Leadership Award is by far the most disposable NHL award. It makes the Lady Byng look like the Nobel Peace Prize. But this could be its moment: I propose that the 2020 Messier Award be given to the NHL team captain that serves as the best Phase 4 Secure Zone chaperone, keeping his teammates cloistered inside the “bubble.” No curfew breaking trips to the clubs. No accidentally accepting a takeout order in the unsecure zone. No missing your COVID test because the alarm didn’t go off. Pre-bubble favorites for the revamped Messier: Zdeno Chara, Sidney Crosby and Nick Foligno, all keeping the kids in their rooms on the class ski trip.

2. The NHL is discussing whether or not players will do an awesome thing and be in the arena watching opponents play games. “It’s a possibility,” Bill Daly told Sportsnet, “we’re trying to see if we can accommodate that in a safe way. We think we probably can. We want to create as much opportunity for entertainment and diversion that we can.”

Again, look no further than professional wrestling and its empty arena shows: They have the faces and heels watching and reacting to each match. Could you imagine the memes if Alex Ovechkin was in the seats in Toronto, actively cheering against the Penguins? Or if Matthew Tkachuk was in the seats, actively cheering against … everyone else? It would be internet gold.

3. Kudos to Tom Wilson of the Washington Capitals for really getting to the core issue of playing games inside of empty arenas. “I guess I’m going to have watch what I’m saying. Less F-words and stuff like that. It’ll be a little different if the mics are picking that up,” he said this week. Notice that it wasn’t no F-words. Just fewer of them. Such is Tom Wilson.

Listen to ESPN On Ice

The latest podcast breaks down the new CBA and projects ahead to the 2022 Olympics with our roster takes. Plus, Nashville Predators head coach John Hynes talks about camp so far, and shares his outlook on the bubble format (16:00). We read some listener mail, and then Bob Stauffer of 630 CHED and “Oilers Now” sells Edmonton to the American audience (40:00). Listen here!

About the NHL’s return to play commercial

Some great news for kids between the ages of 8 and 14 who are obsessed with “The Greatest Showman” soundtrack: OMG, hockey likes it too!

A circus with no Penguins or Flyers?

What’s interesting about this commercial is that for all the goal-scoring wizardry and on-ice acrobatics, the NHL’s postseason marketing focus remains squarely on the biggest star in hockey. Not Alex Ovechkin or Connor McDavid or Auston Matthews, although they’re all glimpsed here. No, that would be the Stanley Cup itself.

I wrote about this in 2012. The NHL held some focus groups about the playoffs. The fans couldn’t name players on the New York Rangers or Los Angeles Kings. But when asked “what is the championship trophy that gets given out at the end of the year?” the fans “unanimously, men and women, would say the Stanley Cup,” according to Brian Jennings, executive VP of marketing for the NHL.

Which is why the Cup gets the most screen time in this ad.

What’s interesting is that the NHL apparently has decided not to play up how great “The Greatest Show” is going to be this season. Yes, the league highlights a number of squads in the 24-team tournament, but there’s no “playoffs like you’ve never seen before” or some other P.T. Barnum-esque boasting. Are they trying to downplay it, considering the circumstances that have led to 24 teams in two bubbles?

Puck headlines

Hockey tl;dr (too long; didn’t read)

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