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Morning Coffee: NHLPA nearing tricky full-member vote on Return to Play and Collective Bargaining Agreement

Morning Coffee is a weekly column about interesting stories from around the league, brought to you by NATIONCOFFEE. 

Despite last week’s news of the Tampa Bay Lightning shutting down their Phase 2 camp due to a COVID-19 breakout and Toronto Maple Leafs star Auston Matthews testing positive for the virus, the NHL is still carrying on with its return-to-play plan.

The league’s re-start is rapidly approaching, with teams set to report for Phase 3 training camps on July 10. With that date just two weeks away, the league and the Players’ Association are soon going to need to agree on the guidelines on how the entire process with operate.

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According to Larry Brooks of the New York Post, the entire NHLPA membership (rather than just an executive board featuring team representatives) will be voting on a comprehensive return-to-play proposal. This will include a wealth of issues, like how the league will handle health and safety, how the quarantine bubble will work, whether players will have the ability to opt-out of playing, and if they can visit family members.

Beyond that vote, the NHLPA will also be voting on an extension to the Collective Bargaining Agreement. Back in September of 2019, the PA voted in favour of extending the CBA, meaning it’s set to come to an end following the 2021-22 season.

A key issue in this CBA vote is escrow as the league navigates through the financial turmoil of the COVID-19 pandemic world. New York Rangers’ star Artemi Panarin dropped a bombshell on social media on Thursday, suggesting that the players need to band together and use the leverage they have now in order to work out a more favourable deal when it comes to escrow.

“For nearly two decades, the players have protected the owners’ income with escrow, including throughout this pandemic crisis, even as owners’ equity continues to grow exponentially,” Panarin said. “It is time to fix the escrow. We as players cannot report to camp to resume play without already having an agreement in place. We are all in this together.”

Due to the CBA’s hardline 50/50 revenue split between the owners and the players, the latter will be repaying the former the revenue that the league missed out on from having the 2019-20 season cut short. Here’s a more in-depth explanation of escrow and the issues facing the league I talked about a couple of months ago. 

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This would become an even bigger issue next season in the event that the NHL can’t put on a normal, 82-game season with fans in the seats. The NHL, of course, is a gate-driven league, and it doesn’t seem likely right now that fans will be able to fill up stadiums any time soon. Someone will have to compensate for the lost revenues.

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This would result in either massively dropping the salary cap’s upper limit in order for the owners to save money on the most expensive part of the operation (player salaries) or having the players essentially repay large parts of their salaries through an inflated escrow figure. Cutting the salary cap down by a large number obviously isn’t going to happen because it would push the league into chaos, so escrow becomes the issue.

So while somebody like Panarin wants escrow reformed and, perhaps, a change to the 50/50 guaranteed revenue split, not every player is in the same boat. As player agent Allan Walsh pointed out on Twitter, players set to hit free agency in the next couple of years prefer escrow because it results in a higher upper salary cap limit, and, subsequently, more earning potential in free agency.

A part of this CBA would involve agreeing to keep the salary cap flat at around $83 million over the next three seasons. For Panarin, that isn’t an issue. He’s already signed his big contract and now his concern is ensuring he doesn’t have to give a bunch of it back through escrow. For somebody like Taylor Hall or Alex Pietrangelo, impending unrestricted free agents, a three-year flat cap isn’t ideal for netting a big payday.

This is a very tricky situation and could play out similar to the very public battle the NFLPA went through back in March. The NFLPA was divided virtually down the middle on accepting the league’s new CBA, with the “yes” side winning 1,019-to-959. Stars like JJ Watt and Russell Wilson were very open about their “no” stance.

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Agape...
Photo By: Jason Franson/Canadian Press
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Elsewhere…

  • If you arent interested in the underlying business aspects of hockey, the most interesting part of that whole report is the potential of the salary cap to remain stagnant for three seasons. This has always seemed to be an inevitable result of the NHL losing a bunch of revenue due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While it’ll be a challenge for general managers to navigate, it isn’t as bad as shoving down the cap ceiling, which was the disaster-scenario people were talking about a couple of months ago.
  • From an Oilers’ perspective, the team isn’t in a terrible salary cap situation, but it’ll make life slightly more difficult for Hall of Fame general manager Ken Holland in the off-season. Moving out a contract like Kris Russell’s $4 million cap hit in order to save some room might be more difficult now as everybody else around the league is facing a crunch. On the flip side of that, though, a greater cap crunch around the league would subsequently squish this summer’s free-agent market. I wasn’t expecting Holland to go big game hunting (because Ryan Nugent-Hopkins needs a new deal soon) but a quality mid-level free agent could fall into Edmonton’s lap due to the domino effects of a squished market.
  • Elliotte Friedman shed some light on what the NHL’s summer tournament schedule could look like. As of now, the goal is to get the tournament rolling in late-July and, according to Friedman, the latest possible date to award the Stanley Cup is Oct. 5. That would mean there’s about 66 days to get this entire thing done. Friedman suggested that we could be seeing daily triple-headers, which could be a challenge if games go into overtime.