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.

Sharks sign defenseman from Czech Republic

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AP

Sharks sign defenseman from Czech Republic

The Sharks have signed Czech defenseman Radim Simek to a one-year contract.

The two-way deal, originally reported by Radio Praha in the Czech Republic, is expected to be announced by the Sharks later this week, according to a source. Simek just finished competing for his country in the 2017 IIHF World Championships, skating in all eight games for the Czech Republic while posting one goal, one assist, 11 shots and a minus-two rating.

Simek, 24, has spent the last five seasons in the Czech League. In 42 games for Liberec in 2016-17, he posted 24 points (11g, 13a) and 30 penalty minutes with a plus-18 rating. A left-handed shot, he is listed at five-foot-11 and 196 pounds on the IIHF website.

The New York Rangers were also interested in Simek, according to the report.

Simek will likely begin next season with the AHL Barracuda.

The Sharks have signed a number of free agents out of Europe in recent seasons, including Joonas Donskoi in 2015 and Marcus Sorensen and Tim Heed last May.

 

Future with Sharks still uncertain for Thornton, Marleau

Future with Sharks still uncertain for Thornton, Marleau

More than four weeks have passed since the Sharks were dispatched by the Edmonton Oilers in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau appear no closer to signing contract extensions than when the season ended. 

Sharks general manager Doug Wilson faces some of the toughest decisions of his 14-year tenure as the head of the hockey department in the coming weeks, beginning with the two best players in franchise history.

And, no, there are no back room handshake deals here between the Sharks and either of Thornton or Marleau, allowing the Sharks to protect extra players in the upcoming expansion draft. The two veterans are still pending unrestricted free agents in the truest sense, and it’s no certainty that either will return to San Jose.

* * *

Re-signing Thornton would seem to be more of a priority than re-signing Marleau, as centermen are more valuable than wingers. Thornton’s line, with Joe Pavelski and whoever the left wing happened to be, was still drawing the opposition’s top defense pair on many nights this season. Marleau was on that line at times, but was shuffled up and down throughout the year, spending about half the season on the third line.

Thornton apparently dodged disaster in terms of his left knee, as multiple sources have told NBC Sports California that the brunt of the damage was to his MCL, not his ACL. As long as he recovers fully, as expected, there’s reason to believe that Thornton could be better next season than he was in 2016-17. Last year’s Stanley Cup Final run, the World Cup, and the condensed schedule seemed to take their toll. Thornton, who typically downplays anything remotely negative, admitted more than once that this season in particular was a grind.

But perhaps just as important to the Sharks is what Thornton brings to the team emotionally. Pavelski may still be the captain – and an effective one, at that – but Thornton is still the heartbeat. Pete DeBoer made that clear after Game 2 of the first round against the Oilers, talking about what Thornton’s absence from the bench in those first two games meant to the team in terms of a bench presence.

“It’s old school accountability with Joe. It’s black and white,” DeBoer said. “He came up in an era and at a time and around people who you weren’t worried about hurting feelings. You said what needed to be said. That’s not always the case now in modern dressing rooms and with modern athletes. He’s a great resource for us, because there’s no greater pressure than peer pressure, especially from a Hall of Fame guy like that.”

So what might it take to retain Thornton and keep him from hitting the open market? 

It has been previously reported that Thornton wanted a three-year deal, and that remains the case. As for money, I would expect Thornton – who has taken hometown discounts in the past to stay in San Jose – to ask for at least $5 million per season, minimum. Our best guess here is that a Thornton-Sharks pre-July 1 agreement would probably look something like three years and somewhere between $15 – 17 million.

Whether the Sharks would be willing to make that kind of commitment to Thornton, who will be 38 in July, is unclear. If they are not, Thornton could listen to offers from other teams beginning on June 24, when the window opens for unrestricted free agents to speak with other teams.

Still, Thornton’s first choice is to remain in San Jose. The Sharks don’t have anyone that could replace him on or off the ice. There should be a deal to be made here, either sooner or later.

* * *

Marleau’s future with the Sharks seems much hazier.

Unlike Thornton – who put up with public ridicule from Wilson and had his captaincy stripped – Marleau’s commitment to the organization hasn’t been quite as steadfast. Recall in 2015, of course, when Marleau’s preference for a brief stretch was to leave the Sharks. We reported here in November, 2015 that he was willing to accept a trade to three teams, while ESPN reported that Marleau’s agent was “quietly exploring the market” as late as January, 2016.

While those feelings seem to have passed over time, Marleau hasn’t been as emphatic as Thornton in his desire to return. When asked on April 24 if he would like to come back to the Sharks, Marleau said: “Yeah, it would be nice. We’ll see if that’s an option. A lot of time here before this decision needs to be made.”

At this point, though, Marleau may be asking for a bit much in his next deal. It’s believed that the franchise’s all-time leading scorer is, like Thornton, seeking a contract of at least three years.

That shouldn’t be overly surprising. When asked then if he wanted a multi-year deal on April 24, Marleau said: “Yeah, I think so. … I still feel like I have at least five good years in me, or maybe more.”

As we wrote here in early February, it may not make much sense for the Sharks to commit to Marleau for more than one year for a number of reasons, including potential long-term (and surely expensive) contract extensions for Martin Jones and Marc-Edouard Vlasic, something Wilson has made his top priority this offseason. 

If Marleau is seeking a lengthy commitment from San Jose, I don’t see how that works from a business perspective for San Jose, which has a number of prospects in the system at wing that could potentially fill the hole Marleau would leave. Timo Meier and Marcus Sorensen, in particular, could be ready to take the next step, and both would be much cheaper options (Meier has two years left on his entry level deal, while Sorensen is a pending restricted free agent that won’t require a huge raise).

* * *

Further complicating matters is that Thornton has never been shy about wanting to win with Marleau by his side. The two famously announced their nearly identical three-year contract extensions on Jan. 24, 2014, and Thornton would still prefer to have Marleau return to San Jose with him.

“Hopefully, I can come back and Patty can come back,” Thornton said after the season ended. “I think this team is a very good team. I think this is a Stanley Cup caliber team. I really believe that."

Considering the salary cap for next season has not yet been revealed, and that Wilson can’t officially extend Jones or Vlasic until July 1, the general manager could be forced to wait a little while before finalizing anything with either Thornton or Marleau. That makes it all the more likely that the Thornton and Marleau camps will at least get an opportunity to hear from other clubs and consider other offers in late June.

In short, anything is still possible. And Wilson, Thornton and Marleau all have some difficult decisions on the horizon in a Sharks offseason that is unlike any other.