NHL Lockout 2012: The beginning of the end?

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After a month of no news and no progress, negotiations lurched forward Tuesday.

A very uneventful 31 days have passed since the NHL lockout became official, but that finally changed on Tuesday, when the league made a significant offer to the players in a small meeting between the NHL and NHLPA in Toronto.

While the NHLPA isn't likely to accept the NHL's current offer, the proposal does signify that a sincere effort may be underway to resolve the impasse.

Given the lack of serious negotiations and an initial NHL offer that was seen as an insult to the players, signs had pointed toward the lockout lasting into at least November, with neither side making much of an effort to solve the dispute until this week.

But now, with the latest NHL proposal, signs of an end game may be coming into view as the weather turns colder. In the proposal, the league is setting a 10-day window to preserve a full 82-game schedule, which would start Nov. 2 - in the Capitals' case, when they are scheduled to host the Boston Bruins.

This proposal is significant because two weeks had already been wiped off the league schedule earlier this month, and this plan gives players a full season's worth of paychecks - restoring the lost two weeks. So, serious negotiations can now begin in earnest to limit the damage to the league's revenue streams.

While the league's offer does provide for a 50-50 split in hockey-related revenue, there are reportedly some significant hurdles in the NHL's offer. While part of it is an effort to place some public-relations pressure on the players, it does at least give the two sides a reference point as they work toward what eventually would be a 50-50 split or something close to that.

The proposed cap of contracts to a maximum of five years isn't unexpected, with teams seeking to ink long-term deals just before the old CBA expired September 15. The limit certainly will be a point of contention for the NHLPA to negotiate off of as they look to restore a bit of the former length to individual contracts.

With teams regularly trying to lessen the cap hit on larger deals by making extended contracts the norm - and, in the New Jersey Devils' case, exceeded it with the Ilya Kovalchuk contract - the practice had caught the eyes of certain owners looking to limit the long-term deals by spreading money thinly over the life of a deal.

While trying to circumvent the cap isn't new - any time there's been a change in the NFL or NBA caps, there's been an effort to work around it - it became a popular option under the old CBA, and players would like to allow owners to make those longer deals.

Another wrinkle in the proposal is the fact that NHLers playing in the AHL on one-way contracts would count against the cap, meaning teams wouldn't be able to hide bad contracts in the minors. For the past few years, players like Sheldon Souray and Wade Redden had found themselves in the minors because they were deemed too pricey for the NHL, and that loophole allowed teams to bury bad contracts on the farm.

Another big sticking point will likely be the reported raising of the unrestricted free agent age to 28. The last lockout brought the UFA age from 31 down to 27 - significantly raising the players' earning power in the process. This time, a year lost to restricted free agency would cost some players significant dollars down the road.

The raising of the entry-level deals from three to four years probably won't raise as many eyebrows, as rookies tend to get the raw end in labor deals, anyway. With most of this year's rookies having already signed entry-level deals under the previous CBA, the issue won't impact anyone who currently is paying dues - or has voting rights - with the NHLPA, and likely will be low on the union's priorities list at the moment.

As I've said before in this space, the NHL lockout had become a predictable exercise, with no resolution coming until one side finally made a move to present an end game. On Tuesday, that day finally arrived.

Just like in the NBA last year, the two sides are fighting over a revenue split, and with the help of a bit of brinksmanship, the issue got resolved in time for the league to fulfill its national television obligations. Now, again, the NHL appears to be moseying down the path to a resolution despite some gloom-and-doom talk.

For the players, the question now is whether it's worth risking at least 20 percent of this year's salaries to try and cut a better deal. The fact that the owners offered up an 82-game schedule is a significant concession to the players, since they would not come out of the lockout losing much money other than escrow withheld to make sure the league meets certain revenue goals.

If the season began Nov. 2 without any rescheduling of the first two weeks of games, it would shave at least 10 percent of players' salaries off the books. But the altering of the schedule would allow both sides to collect on their regular season obligations in full.

While the players have resisted salary cuts, to lose a portion of the regular season would be a de facto salary cut, something the owners could save in lieu of playing the least-profitable portion of the full schedule.

For the owners, there is some pressure to end the lockout, with fans, sponsors and broadcasters all threatening to shrink the league's $3.3 billion revenue pie. The league, which downplayed the mere possibility of the lockout five months ago, now has to answer some tough questions on its stability, since it has failed to start two of the last nine seasons on time.

The important aspect of Tuesday's news is that it finally will give the two sides starting points for what could be a pretty eventful week of negotiations.

While this likely isn't the end of the NHL lockout, it could very well be the beginning of the end

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