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Hockey Notes

Info to keep under your cap

Givebacks reflect sagging economy

By Kevin Paul Dupont
March 15, 2009
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If all the suits on Pennsylvania Avenue have trouble forecasting where the economy will go, it's a good bet that your faithful puck chronicler could be off a tad, pinch, or decimal point when trying to forecast how the NHL salary cap will shape up next season, or through the next 2-3 seasons of the CBA.

However, based on the numbers bandied about by NHL general managers last week in Naples, Fla., as well as calculations offered by the Players Association, the players must prepare to surrender 13-15 percent of their overall salaries. For a guy like Zdeno Chara, on the books for $7.5 million a year, that's a haircut upward of $1.125 million. As trips to the barber shop go, that's much pricier than a "boy's regular."

For the sake of convenience here, let's assume the player "giveback" will come in at 15 percent. For the Bruins, who challenged the ceiling of the $56.7 million cap this season, that doesn't necessarily mean general manager Peter Chiarelli will see the club's cash drawer replenished with $7.5 million or more. Each club's "refund" will differ, in part because of revenue sharing and the unknown dollars to be received during this year's playoffs.

A realistic estimation would be for the Bruins to figure on a $4 million refund, with the possibility that it could be higher. That return would almost cover Marc Savard's salary, which will be rolled back from $5 million to approximately $4.25 million.

Another way to look at this is that 15 percent of an 84-game schedule amounts to 12-13 games. Essentially, the players are working the final month of the regular season pro bono. For the few clubs with no hope of securing a playoff spot, they really have to find some magic to summon inspiration now that they're playing in pro bono land.

Sure, sounds stark, but let's remember that the NHL minimum wage is just under $500,000 a year. Players won't have to hustle grandma's Hummel collection to the consignment shop to make ends meet. For the first three years with the cap system, beginning with the $39 million level in 2005-06, the players received a full escrow refund, collecting 100 percent of their pay, with interest.

"Based on available numbers and financial projections," wrote NHLPA executive director Paul Kelly in an email, "we believe that players will earn approximately 87 percent of their negotiated [salary] for this season."

The players' check for the rest of this season will have 22.5 percent deducted to build up the escrow fund, a significant increase over the 13.5 percent deducted during the first half of the season. The NHLPA bumped up the percentage in January, calculating that hockey-related revenues would be challenged as the season progressed. Upward of two-thirds of all those dollars ultimately will be shoveled to the owners to fulfill that 13-15 percent shortfall, and the remaining escrow cushion refunded to the players.

Now, what does this portend for seasons to come? Many GMs are working under the assumption that next season's cap figure will drop, but only by 3-4 percent, to somewhere around $55 million. That could be optimistic, but in many cases clubs are able to make accurate projections about 2009-10 revenue, based on guaranteed sponsorship deals and season-ticket commitments, with some already collecting next year's ticket revenue.

However, some GMs in Naples last week privately told one another they are girding for a much deeper cut in 2010-11 and are planning now for a figure that season that could be slightly south of $50 million, which would represent nearly a 30 percent increase from the cap's 2005-06 inception.

Granted, not a very rosy picture, but against the backdrop of potentially the greatest North American economic crisis since the Great Depression, a promise to stock 30 teams at a pay level that could approach $1.5 billion looks a lot more appealing than bread lines or a steaming serving of ketchup soup eaten out of a discarded work boot.

"I can't speak for any other teams," said Toronto GM Brian Burke, who has the luxury of dealing with the deepest cash till of all 30 teams, "but I am planning for a market correction in 2010-11, and I sense trepidation among other managers, too. The Toronto Maple Leafs view the number for next year [the estimated $55 million] to be artificial [i.e. high], and we will plan accordingly."

They'll put up with the fights

The general managers spent a large portion of their time in Florida talking about the fight game, how to fine-tune it, and broke from their three-day session with the sweet science still securely embedded in their DNA.

"Leave it alone," said Bruins winger Shawn Thornton, whose fists and courage won him regular NHL work after nine years in the AHL. "I think what happened is unfortunate, but at the same time, hey, I do this for a living, and I know what I got myself into."

Thornton was referring to the death this season of Don Sanderson, a 21-year-old amateur player in Ontario who died days after cracking the back of his head on the ice upon tumbling backward during a fight in a senior league game. NHL GMs reported to Naples intent on discussing all aspects of fighting and perhaps finding ways to make it safer - seemingly a contradiction in terms.

When all the talk cleared, the GMs didn't mandate significant rule changes, but they will continue to monitor such things as staged fights, slew-footing or tripping, takedowns, etc.

There was a decision to have referees better enforce the instigator standard - a bit of a surprise, given that most proponents consider the instigator penalty something that only makes dicier what already is a dicey subject. Look for referees to be more diligent about assessing an instigator when a player, the victim of a clean hit, responds by initiating a scrap.

By this more rigid standard, Chris Drury would have been tagged with the instigator last Sunday in New York after he took offense to a David Krejci hit along the boards (end result: 4 minutes each, roughing).

"You know my feelings," said Cam Neely, whose toughness was at the core of his Hall of Fame career. "I think it helps control all the other stuff that could go on out there. I don't know if staged fighting benefits a hockey game, but I understand two guys dropping their gloves in the heat of a battle."

Neely, now the Bruins vice president, acknowledged the urge to protect the working help but said he felt practical remedies may be impossible. For instance, he said, if players are mandated to keep their helmets on during a fight, does one receive a penalty if the helmet flies off in the course of a fight? Or must both stop fighting immediately if a lid goes free? Could you imagine an enraged Milan Lucic cutting short a flurry of rights just when he has gained an edge on his fellow combatant?

"It has been part of the NHL forever, right?" mused Neely. "And there have been a lot of changes to it. Like I've said before, anyone at a hockey game sees what happens when a fight breaks out. The people who don't want it, are they the people who are coming to the game? I don't think so.

"No matter what building you're in, when a fight breaks out, people stand up to watch it."

Etc.

Fenway puck?
Still no decision on whether the NHL will have another outdoor game Jan. 1, 2010, but it remains highly likely, according to a source in direct contact with NHL headquarters. The three venues receiving the heaviest consideration: Fenway Park, Gillette Stadium, and the new Yankee Stadium. For neighborhood setting and national TV interest, Fenway wins, hands down, but the other venues would offer far better seat selection and winter amenities. The already-antiquated Fenway would look even older in the middle of winter.

Splitting headache
As one general manager noted, players holding contracts for 2009-10 and beyond soon could find themselves at odds with the players who hold expiring deals or those who will be looking to write new or original deals as of July 1. Why? Because the players who want new deals (the likes of Tim Thomas, Phil Kessel, and David Krejci, among other Bruins) obviously will want GMs to be negotiating around a higher cap figure - even if their salaries ultimately get trimmed via escrow. But players with contracts in hand would prefer a smaller (read: more realistic) cap figure, in hopes that they ultimately will be fully compensated for their agreed-upon wage. It likely will lead to long faces and protracted negotiations this summer.

Shooting for Espo
The Capitals took on Carolina in Washington last night, and with 13 games to go, league shots leader Alexander Ovechkin stood 115 shy of equalling Phil Esposito's all-time mark of 550 shots on net (in 78 games in 1970-71). A.O. is also the league leader in missed shots, misfiring 177 times prior to last night.

To each his own
After giving up his mask a night earlier so that Thomas could continue in net vs. the Blue Jackets after his headgear was damaged, an animated Manny Fernandez plopped down next to Thomas after practice Wednesday and kidded, "OK, no more dipping, and there's going to be more rules, too, if you're going to be using my stuff. I want to know, who've you been kissing?" Thomas took it good-naturedly, but he clearly didn't enjoy wearing another man's clothes, and upon packing up for today's matinee in Pittsburgh, "Tank" planned to have a backup mask/helmet in his bag.

Loose pucks
Ex-Bruin Greg Hawgood, now 40, is back in the game, playing for the Steinbach (Manitoba) North Stars, along with former junior teammate Theo Fleury. Hat tip to reader Brad Janes of Fredericton, New Brunswick, for passing along the tip. "Together," Janes wrote of Hawgood and Fleury, "They'd be Byron Bitz's size." . . . Regular readers of this space know your faithful puck chronicler offers no excuses for liking the fights in hockey. Only wish there were more of them. I look at this the way I look at sushi. I can't stand the stuff, but I'm not going to tell you to cut it out or do the right thing and toss that tiny chunk of sure poison on the grill. Have your sushi and chardonnay, and I'll stick with Georges Laraque and Jack Daniels. Cheers.

Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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