In his annual State of the League Address at All-Star Weekend in Ottawa, Gary Bettman said there is no date set for formal collective bargaining talks to begin.
Bettman and new National Hockey League Players' Association union chief Donald Fehr plan to meet this week in what Bettman called “preliminary discussions.” The commissioner has long signaled All-Star Weekend as the starting point for CBA talks.
Besides that, there is no new news on the seven-year old collective bargaining agreement that will expire on Sept. 15 at midnight EST. Hurricanes President and General Manager Jim Rutherford said further deliberations are in the League’s hands.
“I don’t know, and I won’t know,” he said, in reference to progress in talks. “We’ve been into the League for our meeting to give our points and what works for our franchise. Other than that, I’ll probably know as much about the CBA until it’s completed as you’re going to know.”
In December 2010, Fehr was voted by the NHLPA as their executive director. Leading the MLBPA for over 20 years, Fehr oversaw the players union in the strike of 1994-95, which included the cancellation of the entire postseason and World Series.
Bettman said that the League is ready to begin formal talks when the Players Association is. Most recently, the two sides split on the topic of realignment, causing some concern among some that it would lead to larger disagreements. Over the weekend, Fehr downplayed the importance of formal talks, as the two sides appear confident they have time to sign a new labor agreement.
Bolstered by record-setting league revenues and attendance, the salary cap has grown by $25.3 million since the 2005-06 season. This season, the cap has an upper limit of $64.3 million and a floor of $48.3 million. The Hurricanes work off a self-set budget, and this season they’ve spent just over $50 million.
“Our franchise and our market has not kept up with the growth of the League through this CBA,” Rutherford said. “When that happens, because of where the floor is, we’re at the point now where it’s getting to be a stretch where we can make it work financially on a break-even point of view. There’s a little bit of concern about that.”
That said, Rutherford projects an upside to the franchise in the next year, at the earliest.
“We’re doing a new radio deal, and we’re in the middle of a new TV deal,” he said. “There are some areas of great growth for this franchise that will happen sometime in the next year or so, so I’m encouraged by that.”
With these potentially increasing revenue sources, the team might be set to make an aggressive push in the offseason. Rutherford stressed, however, that he wasn’t going to sign a high-dollar free agent just for the sake of signing a high-dollar free agent.
“It’s going to depend on a few things – where are season ticket sales go prior to July 1, whether we get our TV deal done – but we may be in the market for the first time to look at one of the top free agents,” he said.
In past seasons, Rutherford admitted that budget constraints have cost the team players they would have liked to keep otherwise, Ray Whitney and Erik Cole being specifically mentioned
“When you [lose veterans], the young players have to develop a lot quicker,” Rutherford said. “Those two things haven’t matched up, and when that happens, sometimes you take a step back like we did this year.”
Even still, Rutherford said the team has remained competitive throughout most of the current CBA.
“I don’t think there’s any question that when you have a $10-16 million difference in payrolls that that team has an advantage,” Rutherford said. “But, there are teams with lower payrolls that, on given years, compete. We’ve done it twice throughout this CBA. Once we won the Cup, and the other year we went to the Conference Final. Two years we didn’t make the playoffs, but we played meaningful games right up to game 82 and lost out in the final game.”
It remains to be seen this season whether the Hurricanes will still be vying for the playoffs well into March. Rutherford knows the odds are against the team, but he’s not ready to sell just yet.
The GM's offseason strategy will in part depend on what does unfold on and off the ice in the next month or so. Also to consider will be the collective bargaining negotiations.
“This will be a tough offseason to really read what’s going on because on July 1, we’ll be operating under the present CBA,” he said. “At some point in time after July 1, there will be a new CBA with a new set of guidelines. From our point of view, we will have to put together a strategy to how to deal with that and how to project it.”
While labor discussions moving forward will be out of Rutherford’s hands, he would like to see the League build on the momentum it has built throughout the last seven seasons.
“We have a good game right now, and we have a lot of growth in the League,” he said. “I’d like to think we can continue that growth moving forward.”