Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Ten intriguing CBA ideas the NHL could borrow from other sports (but probably won’t)

The NHL’s CBA is making headlines again and for a change, the news might actually be good. The league announced last week that they’ll decline their option to reopen the agreement next year, and there’s a chance that the NHLPA will decide to do the same. If so, what had seemed like an inevitable 2020 lockout would be avoided, or at least pushed back until 2022.

But whether the next CBA comes in a year or down the road, it probably won’t represent a radical change in the way the league does business. The 2005 deal that ushered in a hard cap was quite literally a game-changer, one that reshaped just about everything about how the league operated. But the 2013 deal didn’t change all that much. And even as both sides eye each other warily and stake out their PR ground, there doesn’t seem to be much appetite to make major changes to a system that seems to be working reasonably well.

That’s almost certainly a good thing, at least from the perspective of fans who just want to see a new deal get done without yet another lockout. But it’s always possible that one side (or both) might decide to ask for bigger changes. And they wouldn’t have to look far for inspiration, because the three largest North American pro leagues could all offer up some ideas from their current agreements.

Today, let’s imagine a world where the current CBA needed more than minor tinkering. Here are ten CBA ideas that the NHL could borrow from the NBA, NFL and MLB, and how they’d impact the sport.

We’ll start with the big one …

No guaranteed contracts

Borrowed from: NFL

How it works: The NFL is the only major league where contracts aren’t guaranteed, so teams can essentially walk away from a deal whenever they want. If a big star signs a five-year extension for mega-dollars and then doesn’t live up to the deal through the first year, his team can just cut him and move on. (It’s a little more complicated than that, but we’ll stay out of the weeds here.)

What it would mean for the NHL: Armageddon, probably. Whenever you talk about worst-case scenarios for NHL labor talks, this is the one demand the league could make that could lead to another 2004-05 type of shutdown. The players would have no choice but to push back as hard as possible. Most CBA demands that either side could make would be the equivalent of face washes in a scrum; this one would empty both benches.

But let’s pretend it happened. What would a new NHL without guaranteed contracts look like? Not necessarily like you think it would, because many fans don’t really understand how the NFL system works.

While it’s true that NFL contracts aren’t guaranteed, that doesn’t mean that terminating them is painless. NFL players (and their agents) know that they don’t have long-term security, so they make sure to get as much of their total as possible through signing bonuses and other guaranteed money. It’s not unusual for most of the money in a big NFL contract to be guaranteed on day one. NHL players would demand the same security.

Most of the money isn’t all of the money, and the NFL’s system still tilts heavily in favor of the teams over the players – especially the ones who aren’t big stars and can’t insist on huge bonuses. But cutting a player on a long-term deal can have serious cap implications, often creating big chunks of immediate dead money. Hockey fans dreaming of a world where their favorite team could just painlessly wash their hands of all of its worst signings won’t find the answer in the NFL’s system.

And remember, nonguaranteed contracts can cut both ways. The NHL’s ironclad deals mean that, for example, Connor McDavid is locked into his current eight-year contract, even as inferior players eventually blow by him with better deals. If contracts weren’t guaranteed, he could eventually demand that the Oilers tear up his deal and give him something better, the way that many NFL stars do. Back before the 2005 CBA, the NHL used to see big-name holdouts with some frequency, but they were essentially eliminated once contracts couldn’t be renegotiated by either side.

Will we ever see it?: Let’s hope not. Even though the NFL offers more security than you might think and empowers their biggest stars, its system is still stacked against the majority of players. Given everything we know about risks to players’ long-term health, nobody should be rooting for a massive work stoppage just to take away more of their security.

That covers the elephant in the room. But there are other ideas that the NHL could borrow from the competition …

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