Optimism abounds, but NHL lockout far from over

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Optimism abounds, but NHL lockout far from over

For those of you who havent been paying attention to the NHLs collective bargaining process:

First of all, I envy you.

Secondly, I figured now was as good a time as any to try and figure out when and how this thing will end, now that that the league seems ready to actually negotiate a fair deal with its players.

RELATED: NHL owners propose 50-50 split

So, here are five somewhat random thoughts on the 31st day of the NHL lockout, but perhaps the first day of real progress towards starting the 2012-13 season.

1 On there being a season

First things first there will be NHL hockey this season.

Whenever people have asked me in recent weeks if there would be a season, my response was something along the lines of yes, they cant be that dumb, followed by, at least I dont think so, anyway Hopefully they will prove me right, as its hard to think the NHL and NHLPA dont realize they would be the laughing stock of professional sports if they suffered a second cancelled season in eight years. Not to mention, the damage theyd be doing to the league and money theyd be surrendering.

It also looks to me like the NHL had a clear plan all along. With their most recent offer, and with it being the middle of October already, the league knows theres a small window for the players to get a deal done in which they wont have to sacrifice a single paycheck (although just how the NHL plans to get to 50 percent of revenue from 57 percent without a large escrow sacrifice by the players, has yet to be fully explained).

Still, there is work to be done on a number of issues, and no one knows every little detail of the NHLs proposal except the two parties involved (the NHLPA is reviewing it now). A season beginning on Nov. 2 is far from a sure thing at this point. In fact, a Thanksgiving or early December start date might still be more likely than Nov. 2.

2 On the 5050 split

Even before the lockout began, one NHL source told me that the leagues goal would be to get hockey related revenue down to a 50-50 split from the 57 percent that players received at the end of the last CBA. Even the players surely knew that this was coming, especially on the heels of recent deals in the NBA (51 percent to the players) and NFL (47-48.5 percent to the players).

Well, now its finally on the table.

Of course, that doesnt mean the players are just going to roll over and accept it. The biggest single concern the players have had since the lockout began is that they want their current contracts honored in full. The league finally recognized they were serious about this, and according to what Gary Bettman said on Tuesday, there are no salary rollbacks included in their latest proposal. In fact, according to reports, there are clauses in the deal that ensure the players wont have to give back a large percentage of their salaries in the first year, despite the reduction in hockey-related revenue.

My guess is that the players will agree to a 5050 revenue split, although not necessarily right away. I think theyll push for something along the lines of 53 percent next season with a gradual reduction to 5050 within a few years. As revenues (hopefully) increase, current contracts wont be subject to an escrow reduction.

The two parties, obviously, will talk about this again.

3 On contract lengths

This issue is nearly as important as money to the owners, who need some sort of a clause in future contracts to protect them from themselves. That means teams like Philadelphia (Chris Pronger and the Shea Weber offer sheet) and New Jersey (Ilya Kovalchuk) wont be able to circumvent the salary cap with lifetime deals in order to ink the most sought-after free agents.

It also means contracts like those signed by Ryan Suter and Zach Parise with Minnesota this summer will be a thing of the past.

Owners have requested a five-year cap on all contracts, and its hard to imagine the NHLPA will go for that. Still, I would expect that this is something that the owners will take a hard stance on. In the end, I think we can expect something along the lines of a six or seven year maximum on future deals, perhaps with a rule that salaries be the same every season, and a teams cap number will be measured in real dollars rather than the average salary for the life of the deal as it is now.

4 On minor league reassignments counting against the cap

Our friends at ProHockeyTalk.com have already dubbed this the Wade Redden Rule, and its another potential roadblock to getting a deal done.

As it stands now, NHL teams like the New York Rangers are allowed to send players that have cleared waivers to their minor league clubs in order to have them not count against the cap, such as they did with Redden, who signed a six-year, 39 million deal in 2008 but now suits up for the Connecticut Whale in the AHL.

The league wants to put an end to that practice, as it gives the higher revenue clubs an unfair advantage. For example, if the Flyers wanted to jettison goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov, who already looks like a colossal mistake and has eight years and 45 million remaining on his deal, to their minor league affiliate, his salary would still be counted against the cap.

Again, this is something the NHLPA will not be so sanguine on, as it takes money directly from its coffers. At the same time, in my opinion (and likely the opinion shared by many mid-to-low revenue clubs), teams like New York and Philadelphia ought to be penalized for making ill-advised personnel decisions.

Its hard to predict how this will end up.

5 On the PR battle

The NHL suffered an embarrassment on Monday when Deadspin revealed that it had hired a Republican Party strategist to help minimize damage in terms of public opinion. Theres no question the league was losing the PR battle, as many fans viewed the owners as a bunch of greedy billionaires who were looking to line their pockets with money that was already promised to the players.

Well, if the players reject todays NHL proposal outright, theyll risk losing that majority support from the fan base.

Its hard to argue a 5050 split is anything but fair, especially if the league is promising to honor current signed deals in full. Although it was their decision to lock the players out, the owners and Bettman have helped to oversee a league that has grown to 3.3 billion in revenues thereby making the players richer in the process. They assume all the risk, and have run the league on just 43 percent of revenues. Lockout aside, its hard to argue that theyve been successful in doing just that.

Several players, including the Sharks' Dan Boyle, have said in recent weeks that they knew there would have to be certain givebacks to the owners. We'll find out now if they were serious.

Analysis: Scoring winger a need for Sharks ahead of trade deadline

Analysis: Scoring winger a need for Sharks ahead of trade deadline

SAN JOSE – There are no glaring holes for the San Jose Sharks to fill ahead of next week's NHL trade deadline on March 1.

Still, Sharks general manager Doug Wilson is a notorious tire-kicker, and he’s surely working the phones these days to see if there’s anything out there that could help his hockey club, which has a comfortable five-point lead on the Pacific Division midway through its bye week.

“We’ll see, but we do feel really good about this group,” Wilson told CSN earlier this month. “We believe in our players and we believe in our guys on the Barracuda, because they’ve earned that.

“Having said that, our history speaks for itself. If there’s a way to help this hockey team or add something, we’ve always done it, and we’ll always explore it.”

So, what might the Sharks be exploring? There are two areas that make the most sense – a backup goaltender, and a scoring winger.

* * *

No question Aaron Dell has exceeded expectations in his first NHL season. He’s 7-3-1 with a 1.95 GAA and .934 SP in 12 games, and his .953 even-strength save percentage is tops in the league among goalies that have played at least 10 games.

Still, it’s unknown if Dell would be able to handle the day-to-day grind, if anything were to happen to Jones. Even in the minors last season when he earned the number one job with the Barracuda, he wasn’t playing three and four games a week due to the AHL’s Pacific Division having fewer games than the rest of the league. He’s also not been overly tested at the NHL level – of Dell’s 10 starts, only one has come against a team currently in playoff position, and the Calgary Flames are only barely in the second Wild Card spot.

There are some goalies thought to be trade bait as pending unrestricted free agents. They include Tampa Bay’s Ben Bishop, Winnipeg’s Ondrej Pavalec, the Islanders’ Jaroslav Halak, or Philadelphia goalies Steve Mason and Michal Neuvirth. All could likely be gotten for some combination of young players and/or draft picks.

But is it worth it for the Sharks to make a move for a player that might not even be needed in the postseason? According to one NHL analyst, the Sharks should just take their chances with the inexperienced North Dakota product.

“I probably wouldn’t put a whole lot of resources in [finding a backup goalie],” NBCSN analyst Keith Jones told CSN on the latest Sharks Insider Podcast. “If Martin Jones was injured you’d have a real problem, it would be tough to find a goalie to replace what he brings to the table. I know they tried James Reimer last year, and the book is out on him. … I’m not sure that that’s a major upgrade on Aaron Dell.”

That said, Keith Jones would like to see Martin Jones – who’s on pace to play 69.5 games – get more time off after the schedule resumes. That means increased playing time for Dell.

“I think you might just want to take a chance with your backup a little more frequently,” Jones said. “You may want to sacrifice a few games along the way. [Dell] gains some experience, and Jones gets some rest.”

The impression here is that the Sharks will probably stick with Dell. Sharks coach Pete DeBoer has been nothing short of glowing in his reviews of Dell lately, as well he should be. The goalie has earned his place on this team, and none of the other goalies that the Sharks could acquire would be obvious upgrades at this stage of the season.

* * *

A much stronger case can be made that the Sharks are in need of another scoring winger. 

While the offense has been more dangerous in recent weeks than it was over the first half of the season, it still doesn’t look as effective as it was last season going into the playoffs, when it finished fourth in the league. Yes, the power play has been relatively power-less, but there’s more to it than that.

Mikkel Boedker has been a disappointment after signing a four-year deal as a free agent, and was benched yet again on Sunday. Joonas Donskoi, still out with what looks like a shoulder injury, hasn’t taken that next step after his strong playoff run last season. Joel Ward is off his scoring pace from last year. Patrick Marleau has been outstanding, but remains streaky. Kevin Labanc and Timo Meier have done some nice things as rookies, but neither of them has “arrived” yet, to borrow a word commonly used by DeBoer. Nikolay Goldobin failed in his two-game tryout last week, too.

Finding a winger to play on the Joe Thornton-Joe Pavelski line should be a priority, as DeBoer has tried seven different wingers there this season without finding a permanent fit. 

Among the veterans that could be available are Dallas’ Patrick Sharp or Patrick Eaves, Arizona’s Shane Doan, Colorado’s Jarome Iginla, Detroit's Thomas Vanek, or even Vancouver’s Alex Burrows or Jannik Hansen, if the club is looking for a more agitating type.

Sharp is perhaps the most intriguing name on that list. Although he’s been hurt off and on this season and his numbers are down on a bad Dallas team, he’s a veteran scorer that has won three Stanley Cups as part of Chicago’s dynasty. He’s an obvious upgrade over the players that have rotated through the Thornton line.

Bringing in one of those aforementioned forwards would require some salary cap juggling (especially Sharp, who carries a $5.9 million cap hit) and perhaps a salary from the current roster going the other way, as the Sharks don’t have a whole lot of room right now. But it’s worth exploring, as a consistent offensive attack should be this team’s biggest worry right now with seven weeks until the postseason.

* * *

If the Sharks don’t make a move, DeBoer and company are still confident with the team in the dressing room. After all, most of those players were a part of the team’s run last season, when the Sharks were just two wins from capturing the Stanley Cup.

“For us, it’s not whether a piece comes in or whether we don’t bring any pieces in, I think we’re confident in our group,” DeBoer said. “It’s about us…playing to our identity for as long a stretch as is possible, because that’s what wins in the playoffs. Whether we don’t do anything or whether a piece comes in here, I don’t think that mindset changes.”

Justin Braun said: “Management is going to do what they’re going to do, but if they don’t do anything, we have confidence with everyone in here to get the job done.”

Despite loss, Sharks 'in a good spot' headed into bye week

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USATSI

Despite loss, Sharks 'in a good spot' headed into bye week

SAN JOSE – Despite what was technically their sixth loss in the last eight games, the Sharks seemed to put more stock in the point they gained in a 2-1 overtime loss to the Bruins on Sunday night at SAP Center, rather than the one they left on the table.

They have that luxury. 

The Sharks will enter their bye week five points ahead of Edmonton and Anaheim for first place in the Pacific Division, and figure they’re due for some time off after a short summer followed by a World Cup for some, and a brutal condensed NHL schedule for all.

“[We’ve] showed up and played hard,” Joe Pavelski said. “We’ve been in a lot of games. Games we’ve lost, we’ve battled. There hasn’t been any cheat in [our] game. Defensively, we’ve been strong. There’s a lot of good areas in our game that we like right now.”

Playing in the second of a back-to-back against a Bruins team had was coming off of its own bye week, the Sharks fell behind 1-0 on a first period goal by Ryan Spooner, but notched a Patrick Marleau equalizer in a second period in which they outshot the Bruins 16-9. An evenly played third period gave way to overtime, where Brad Marchand scored on a breakaway to give the Bruins their fourth straight win since changing head coaches.

The Sharks spoke before the weekend about finishing the final two games strong before the respite. They ended up gaining three of four points, including Saturday’s 4-1 win in Arizona, and were pleased with their effort against the Bruins as they capped off 10 games in 20 days since the All-Star break.

“It was an important push into this break,” Pete DeBoer said. “To go in up [five points] on the next closest team is a real testament to our group.”

Paul Martin said: “I thought we played pretty well, considering the back-to-back with some travel, and a team that was waiting for us.”

Perhaps the most encouraging performance came from Martin Jones, who was one of a number of Sharks players that was looking particularly fatigued lately. The goaltender entered the game with a 1-0-2 record, 4.46 goals-against average and .837 save percentage in his last four starts, including getting pulled after the first period in Boston just 10 days ago.

Jones was impressive, though, making a vital pad stop on the dangerous David Pastrnak in front of the net midway through the third period to keep it a 1-1 score.

“It was a good game. Two teams playing hard,” Jones said. “We can take a lot of positives from that one. It was a good hard game, just didn’t go our way tonight.”

Overtimes have been an issue lately, though. The Sharks have lost their last four games decided during the three-on-three, all coming within the last two weeks. As satisfied as they are with their cushion in the division, it could have been cushier.

Against the Bruins, Tuukka Rask denied Brent Burns on a two-on-one in overtime, and Marchand scored off of the ensuing faceoff, blowing the zone past Pavelski and Marc-Edouard Vlasic and corralling a long toss from Torey Krug before sliding it home.

“We get to overtime, shootouts – we expect to get that extra point,” Pavelski said. “We haven’t found it lately. We’ll just keep looking for it.”

DeBoer said: “The points are critical, they’re valuable. I don’t read a lot into [overtime decisions], we’ve won our share over the time I’ve been here. We had a chance to win tonight, too. … I concentrate on the effort, and I thought we got better as the game went on.”

Being focused and energized, as they have been most of the season to this point, shouldn’t be a problem when the season resumes next Saturday in Vancouver. The Sharks are in prime position to win their first division title since 2010-11, and a return trip to the Stanley Cup Final is a distinct possibility.

Losing six of eight won’t be nearly as acceptable coming out of the break as it apparently is going into it, but that’s not something to worry about now, even after another defeat. 

“There are some games you wish you could get back and get those points, but we’re still in a good spot,” Marleau said.