NHL labor negotiations reach a critical point

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NHL labor negotiations reach a critical point

Things better start getting serious in the NHL labor negotiations, and quickly, or the entire regular season will be in jeopardy.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly will meet today in Toronto at the NHLPA offices with Donald and Steve Fehr, the directors of the union, and the expectation is that both sides are prepared to discuss the core economic issues at the heart of their significant disagreement.

Thats a change from what's transpired since the lockout began. What talks have been held have focused on issues like ice-surface conditions, player safety, and the high cost of additional training staff for each of the 30 NHL clubs. In other words, the two sides have been avoiding the 500-pound gorilla in the room thats been jumping up and down for months.

At least one side, and perhaps both, are ready to bring new offers to the table and finally start actual negotiations on the issue that spurred the lockout. It may end the mother of all staring contests, which has wiped out the entire preseason and the first two weeks of the regular-season schedule.

This week represents the last-ditch effort to find common ground before things really get bad, and we find out what kind of kamikaze mission the NHL is on after missing the 2004-05 season to labor issues.

The expectation is that the league will cancel up to a month of games if things dont radically improve during this next round of discussions. That would wipe out two paycheck periods up to Nov. 22 (though it would leave the nationally televised Black Friday game between the Bruins and Rangers on Nov. 23 untouched for the time being).

If that happens, the players will have lost roughly 20 percent of their salaries for 2012-13. That may harden positions on the NHLPA side, since the players felt all along that the owners -- feeling there'd be a work stoppage that would result in a new collective bargaining agreement with player givebacks -- signed a slew of contracts for more than a billion dollars this summer without any intention of paying the full freight.

Still, losing 20 percent of salary is certainly more palatable than losing 100 percent if the entire season is cancelled and, according to sources with knowledge on both sides, the feeling is that if the dispute drags on into November, the NHL will cancel the entire season.

At some point logic has to factor in, since the players dont have many other options. The salaries in Europe that many are collecting as they play there during the lockout are small to begin with, and most of it is eaten up by the high cost of insurance to protect them in case of injury. The only league close to approaching the NHL in pay scale is the KHL, but its long plane trips and less-than-ideal setting don't make it an attractive destination.

(There have even been reports of NHL players unable to get their own equipment delivered to them in the KHL because their suppliers have been harassed by Eastern European companies. That kind of thing will get old very quickly for players like Zdeno Chara and Henrik Zetterberg, who are used to the first-class, five-star experience guaranteed everywhere they go in the NHL.)

What's especially worrisome is that the NHL is now focused at least partially on winning the public-relations battle. It has gone so far as to hire the same consulting firm used by the Republican Party to turn the PR tide against the players.

Whats escaping the NHL and to a lesser degree the NHLPA is that the ticket-purchasing public doesnt care which side is right. Theres a limit to Joe Six Packs empathy for millionaire players and billionaire owners when the NHL isnt playing games, and its being reached.

Those intimate with the NHLPA line of thinking freely admit that a deal that slowly staggers their percentage of Hockey Related Revenue down from its current 57 percent figure would work. The players know its eventually going to be a 5050 proposition, and a seven-year deal that goes something like 53-52-51-50-50-50-50 for the players would be approved with very little fight from the NHLPAs side.

So far the NHL hasn't budged from its demand for a drastic drop, right off the bat, that would cut the players share by 10-20 percent immediately.

That represents 300-700 million in very real money cuts for players in a league thats broken revenue records in each of the last five seasons. It's a giant slice of the pie, and the players wont give it up all at once.

It shouldnt take a PR consulting firm to come up with a clever marketing campaign for the NHL during the lockout. Its very simple:

Seek a fair compromise rather than wield a sledgehammer of greed. End the lockout. Protect the season, the Winter Classic, the HBO 247 series and Stanley Cup playoffs.

The fans dont care which side is right. They just want their NHL back, and they want it back now.

The sooner the NHL grasps that simple truth, the better it will be for everybody involved.

Friday, Jan. 20: Canes’ Bickell tries to carry on after MS diagnosis

Friday, Jan. 20: Canes’ Bickell tries to carry on after MS diagnosis

Here are all the links from around the hockey world, and what I’m reading, while simply skating my lane today.

*A terrific piece on Carolina Hurricanes forward Bryan Bickell getting on with his life after an MS diagnosis, and pushing to see if he can return to the ice.

*If the New York Islanders botch the hirings for people guiding the franchise, then John Tavares could be one of the next figures gone from Brooklyn.

*It’s been a rough go of it for St. Louis Blues goaltender Jake Allen over the past few weeks and that continued on Thursday night.

*Top NHL Draft prospect Nolan Patrick’s value comes from his two-way play, and that’s what teams are focused on rather than the injury issues.

*Mike Babcock talks a wide range of subjects with James Duthie during a 1-on-1 with the Toronto Maple Leafs head coach.

*In his never-ending odyssey on the fringes of the NHL, Seth Griffith has been claimed by the Maple Leafs on waivers for the second time.

*Veteran forward Clarke MacArthur won’t be playing this season for the Ottawa Senators amid his concussion issues.

*For something completely different: Bill Belichick just being Bill Belichick at his press conference on Friday and that’s something we can all be reassured about.

 

Haggerty: Bruins motto is don't just do something, stand there!

Haggerty: Bruins motto is don't just do something, stand there!

After back-to-back, soul-crushing losses earlier this week, the Bruins responded by doing pretty much what they've done over the last couple of seasons:

Nothing.

Claude Julien was not relieved of his duties -- as many expected after the Bruins blew a couple of three-goal leads in a shootout loss in Detroit on Wednesday night -- and there was no big shakeup for a reeling hockey club that certainly feels like it needs it.

Instead the Bruins will host the Chicago Blackhawks on Friday night after going through a “nothing-to-see-here, everything-is-fine” morning skate at Warrior Ice Arena, then go to Pittsburgh for a Sunday afternoon matinee against a Penguins team that’s playing some pretty good hockey.

Maybe the Bruins will play better than they did in taking one out of a possible four points against two of the worst teams in the East -- the Islanders and Red Wings -- and perhaps that will tamp down some of the unrest among those that closely follow this organization.

But the fact is, the Bruins front office doing nothing in the face of stunning underperformance from its hockey club is the furthest thing from courage, bravery or doing the right thing.

This is the third straight year we've seen no-shows and a startling lack of emotional engagement from a team that collapsed down the stretch and missed the postseason in each of the last two seasons, and is now in a position where it may not even be in the playoff hunt at the end of this one. To sit still as it happens again feels, to this humble hockey writer, like willful indifference in the face of the obvious: Something is broken with the Bruins.

There's no single big trade that can fix it, not with the Coyotes and Avalanche as the only true sellers. And a Bruins management group with the true best interests of the hockey club in mind would look at the 'seller' option, dealing away some of the core pieces and starting a true rebuild around Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and the young players under team control that are beginning to filter into the NHL level.

But it doesn’t feel like this current B’s front office, or the ownership group, has the appetite for that, and instead wants to retool on the fly while also attempting to compete for the playoffs. That’s a delicate balance and it’s one that has caused the Red Wings to go sideways this season, putting them in danger of missing the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time since 1990-91.

That’s the same Red Wings team, incidentally, that somehow came back from deficits of 3-0 and 4-1 against the Bruins on Wednesday.

With a trade unlikely, the easiest way to a short-term spark continues to be a change with the head coach. Everybody knows Claude Julien has been the best coach in the modern Bruins era, and he’ll forever be loved and cherished in the Boston area for helping win the Stanley Cup in 2011. But the jarring comments from Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand about the team not being ready to play, and collectively taking the Isles too lightly, can’t be ignored.

It feels like things are altogether too comfortable in the Bruins dressing room, and that can be a byproduct of the same coach with the same core group of players for the last 10 years. The sense here is that the Bruins need a short term butt-kicker who'd come in and challenge some Bruins veterans who haven’t been challenged enough in recent years, and will bring an edge to a group that’s look satisfied and happy lately while insulated with big-money contracts and no-movement clauses.

That kind of move could give the Bruins enough of a nudge to get them into the playoffs this season, and help ease the rebuilding pain until Charlie McAvoy, Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson, Zach Senyshyn and the next wave of Bruins prospects are ready to blossom.  

Instead the fancy-stats brigade will tell you that the Bruins are automatically going to turn things around because of the incredibly slim premise that it’s all based on shooting percentage, and Bruin apologists will tell you that the roster simply isn’t good enough right now. So riding it out with Julien is the right move because he's the MacGyver-like chewing gum that’s holding it all together right now.

Sorry, but many are not buying this Bruins-approved message.

They have two-thirds of the best forward line from the World Cup of Hockey in Bergeron and Marchand. They have a legitimate No. 1 goalie in Tuukka Rask. They have experienced, proven winners in David Krejci, David Backes and Zdeno Chara. They have bright, young talents in David Pastrnak and Brandon Carlo. And they're about to get passed by the Senators and Maple Leafs in the playoff race once those other teams catch up to Boston in games played. Nobody can make the straight-faced claim that Toronto or Ottawa is superior to the Bruins in the overall talent department.

The Bruins are underachieving this season, and some players have been truly disappointing in big spots.

The simple truth is that Julien isn’t getting the most out of them. They settle for perimeter shots far too much in the offensive zone, which plays into the poor team shooting percentage, and they take opponents lightly far too often for a hockey club in the NHL’s middle class.

Those kinds of traits fall back on the coach, and, unfortunately, replacing Julien is the most readily available card for Bruins management to play when they finally begin feeling the desperation and urgency that’s been missing too much this season.

Perhaps some of it is a fear of removing a popular, accomplished figure like Julien, and then watching him have success somewhere else. Perhaps some of it is a hesitancy to turn things over to assistants Joe Sacco and Bruce Cassidy at such a delicate point in time this season. Perhaps some of it is that one of the few real alternatives the Bruins are facing would be general manager Don Sweeney or team president Cam Neely actually manning the bench as Julien’s replacement if they fired the head coach, a maneuver that hasn’t been seen with the Bruins since the Harry Sinden days when Mike O’Connell went to the bench in 2002-03 after firing Robbie Ftorek.

Whatever the reason, the Bruins still haven’t seen enough to decide that something needs to change with this group sputtering along to another playoff DNQ. The fans are decrying it while holding their hefty season-ticket package bills in their hands, the clear-eyed observer sees it without question, and there’s no doubt some hard-working Bruins players are hoping for it behind the scenes on a ship that’s taking on water.

But nothing of significance is going to change with this Bruins team until they make a change, and that’s something they continue to avoid.