Friday, July 10, 2020

The NHL has its new CBA. What will it mean for fans?

p>The NHL has a new collective bargaining agreement. With the results of this week’s vote now in and approval from nearly 79 percent of players, per reports, the league can move forward with its return-to-play plan for a summer playoffs paired with a new deal that will last through 2026. A new CBA, let alone one reached with little in the way of animosity, would have seemed unthinkable just a few months ago, but pandemics have a way of shifting priorities.

By now, you’ve probably already seen plenty of smart breakdowns about what this all means for the owners, for the players, for Gary Bettman’s legacy and for the bottom line. But I want to look at it from a slightly different angle: What does this mean for the fans? What does it mean for you and me, who don’t really care where every single dollar winds up as long as we get to watch our favorite team chase a Stanley Cup?

Let’s try to figure that out. I’m going to focus on the actual CBA – the return-to-play agreement is its own separate category, and we’ve already looked at what that might be like for fans and whether we should even want it to happen in the first place. Today, let’s worry about the new CBA itself, and what it might mean for us over the years to come.

And we can start with the obvious.

Just getting a deal done is a big win for fans …

Let’s start with the important thing, and we can just cut to the chase: This is good news for fans. There’s no need to go looking for a contrarian angle here. For the first time in the Gary Bettman era, and in fact, the first time since the players briefly went on strike late in the 1991-92 season, the NHL is going to get a new CBA without a work stoppage. That’s good news, full stop.

I’ll admit, I didn’t think it was going to happen, and maybe it wouldn’t have if the world hadn’t been hit by a global pandemic that upset everything we thought we knew about pro sports economics. Or maybe it would have happened anyway, because there are only so many times that smart people can try to pull the same act on their customers. We’ll never know. But the point is they made a deal without locking the doors, and now we’ve got another six years before we have to wonder about this stuff again.

Should it have taken a global catastrophe for the NHL to do what every other league seems to have already figured out a way to do? No, but it did, and here we are. If you’ve spent the last quarter-century ripping on the league for always needing a lockout to get a deal (raises hand), you have to applaud them for finally getting it right this time.

… as long as you don’t cheer for a team that’s up against the cap

A flat cap for several years, until revenue returns to pre-pandemic projections? Hoo boy. Sorry, fans of the Maple Leafs, Lightning, Blues and all the other capped out teams who only a few months ago were told that next year’s cap could be as high as $88 million. This might get ugly.

That’s not to say there was any way to avoid a flat cap, and in fact, having it stay where it is might be a victory of sorts. If the league had insisted on the cap remaining tied directly to revenues, the wreckage of the 2019-20 season would have meant the cap dropping, maybe significantly. That would have been a nightmare, as teams scrambled to cut wherever they could to stay compliant. Nobody would have won in that scenario – not fans, not players, not the teams who’d have to frantically gut their rosters – so avoiding it is a win of sorts.

That said, there were options available to mitigate the pain for capped out teams. The league could have thrown in a compliance buyout or two. They could have borrowed cap-bending measures from other sports, like a Larry Bird exception or variable cap hits. They could have got really creative, allowing teams to trade for cap space or borrow from future years.

They didn’t do any of that. Instead, they basically served up the same format we’ve had for years. Given the urgency to get a deal done as quickly as possible, you can understand why they didn’t do anything crazy. But if you’re a fan that’s used to defending your team’s budget crunch by saying “It’s OK, the cap always goes up,” then you’re about to see what life’s like when it doesn’t.

At a more granular level, the same concerns apply to fans of teams with one or more bad contracts. Sorry Blackhawks fans, there’s no get-out-of-jail-free card coming for Brent Seabrook. Same with the Sharks and Marc-Edouard Vlasic. We could name plenty of others. If you cheer for those teams, it’s time to shift your thinking from “compliance buyouts will save us” to “the expansion draft will (somehow?) save us.”

So yeah, tough times for a lot of teams in the league. Of course, that could present an opportunity for others. If you root for one of the few teams with lots of caps space, you’re about to see how creative your GM wants to get.

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