MANALAPAN, Fla. – After meeting with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, the league’s general managers are leaving Florida with the expectation the salary cap will rise by only $1 million, to $83.5 million, for next season.
The possibility they have more to play with in free agency in July does, however, appear more alive than it did when the NHL Board of Governors meeting was held at the nearby Breakers Hotel in December.
Back then, Bettman said league revenues would have to grow by roughly $150 million over the NHL’s projections in order to pay off the remainder of the debt the players owe the owners due to the pandemic.
On Wednesday, after three days of meetings with the general managers about minor rule tweaks and protective equipment, Bettman said the projections indicate that gap has been narrowed by about $50 million and that, if it can be completely eliminated by the end of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the cap would rise by $4.5 million for next season.
He also, for the first time, opened the door to negotiations with new executive director of the NHLPA Marty Walsh to have the cap rise higher than $1 million, even if the debt isn’t fully paid off by the end of this season.
“It could be a discussion,” Bettman said. “We’re hearing around the bend from players and others that there may be interest in having that, but one thing to keep in mind if we’re going to raise the cap and the escrow hasn’t been paid off, is then we’re going to have to look at raising the escrow rates, which under the CBA extension in 2020 is locked into the last three years of the CBA term at 6 per cent. So, if you’re going to raise the cap prematurely, then you’re going to have to look at the escrow percentage as well. The two are inextricably tied together.”
Whether or not the players would go for that – rather than complete their payments for this season and accept that their final escrow payments will be made next season ahead of a significant increase in the salary cap – is unknown.
Meanwhile, even if the general feeling is that there will still be a debt to clear by season’s end, Bettman feels the NHL’s rebound from the pandemic has still been a great success.
“We’re back from COVID really strong,” Bettman said. “Our revenues are approaching the $6-billion range and they’re at an all-time high. Attendance is strong, TV and media revenues are strong, sponsorship support is great, so it’s really even doing better …
“When we started this (in 2020), there was a lot of skepticism of how the billion-and-a-half dollars would be repaid, but the fact is we’re in the home stretch on that and if it’s not this year, it’ll be next year, which is sooner by a year or two at least than we had initially projected when we entered into the extension of the CBA.”
Threats to that could be the recent bankruptcy filing of regional television partner Diamond Sports Group (Bally Sports) and the uncertain future of regional partner AT&T SportsNet. Were the league forced to broadcast its own games initially allocated to those partners through the end of the regular season, it’s possible it would affect the NHL’s current projections.
Though we don’t know to what extent it, if any, it would.
“Obviously, it’s not inexpensive to run sports channels,” acknowleded Bettman, “or Bally/Diamond wouldn’t be in the situation they’re in.”
But the commissioner said that, as it stands, all regional broadcasts will be provided by partners through the end of the regular season.
Ottawa Senators weeks from being purchased
Bettman confirmed Wednesday that all bids on the Senators have been received and Phase 2 of the process will soon be undertaken.
He called interest in the franchise “robust,” and “meaningful and significant,” and said it could be a matter of weeks before the team officially changes hands.
As for what Phase 2 will entail, Bettman said, “We begin the process of whitling down the number of interest parties and, in reducing the number of parties, you’re hopefully increasing the magnitude of their interest.”
He would not comment on whom the bidders were.
As for whether or not a new arena in downtown Ottawa is tied to the bid, Bettman said it wasn’t, and that moving the Senators to the downtown LeBreton Flats location would be at the new owner’s discretion and subject to negotiation with the National Capital Commission.
In June 2022, a memorandum of understanding was signed between the Senators and the NCC on a land-lease agreement covering a new event centre, with construction potentially launching as early as fall 2024.
No desire to change divisional playoff format
Despite certain players polled at All-Star weekend expressing an interest in seeing the NHL reverting back to a more traditional playoff format – where the first seed plays the eighth seed in the first round – Bettman said the appetite for change from both the league and its GMs is negligible.
“There isn’t much different between either format,” Bettman said. “We think, and I think it’s concurred with, with the general managers, that what we’ve got works really well.”
Were the playoffs to commence Wednesday, two of the top six teams in the NHL standings would be eliminated after the first round.
Still, Bettman doesn’t see that as an issue.
“I know that some people may have a preference for doing things differently,” he said, “but this is working well and we’re not looking to make any changes.”
No issue with sitting players for trade-related purposes or teams accruing dead cap hits … yet
There’s no hard and fast rule on benching players from NHL games ahead of the trade deadline, but it was generally assumed both the league and the NHLPA frowned upon teams doing it without having trades involving any such players near complete.
This season saw several players scratched from games for “trade-related purposes” and done so for an unprecedented length of time before trades they were involved in were actually completed.
Although this was a subject discussed at the GM meetings, it’s not one the NHL intends to act on immediately.
“The fact is we’ve never had an issue with clubs icing their best, most competitive teams,” said Bettman. “We don’t have load-management issues. We haven’t had those issues. This is the closest we’ve ever seen to that … . We saw a little more of it this year than we ever have and that’s something we’re going to have to keep on eye on, to see whether or not this year was an aberration based on how teams were playing and not playing, and what players were being moved. So, this might be a one-off. If it’s a continuing trend, then we’ve gotta think about a) is it a problem? And if it is, what are we going to do about it? And that’s a long way from where we are.”
Bettman also said there was also no issue in teams such as Arizona using cap space to acquire players who will help them reach the floor without ever playing for them.
Expansion/rule changes NOT on the immediate horizon
When asked about surfacing reports regarding potential NHL expansion to Houston and Atlanta, Bettman said, “There continues to be a number of people, entities and cities expressing interest in having an NHL franchise where they don’t have one. Places like Atlanta, like Houston, like Quebec City.”
But he also said, “We’re not in expansion mode right now, and it’s not really something, at least right now, that’s anywhere close to front burner for us.”
Another thing that doesn’t appear to be on the “front burner” for the NHL is instituting the minor rule tweaks proposed at the GM meetings regarding expanding video review/coach’s challenges for plays involving “friendly fire” high-sticks and erroneous puck-over-glass penalties.
Bettman said the NHL will think further on these topics and, if they intend to move forward with changes, will submit them to the NHLPA’s competition committee for vetting and approval.
Critical dates revealed
The Connor Bedard sweepstakes will be settled on May 8, when the NHL Draft Lottery takes place.
Bettman also provided an update on other critical dates on the NHL calendar:
April 17: Start of the playoffs
June 3: Tentative start of the Stanley Cup Final (it could move up if preceding series wrap sooner than expected)
June 4: Scouting combine in Buffalo
June 26: NHL Awards
June 28, 29: NHL Draft in Nashville