It’s a basic tenet in negotiations, one Darcy Regier alludes to often. If the Buffalo Sabres’ general manager wants to sign a player at a lower salary, he’ll add another year or two to the contract. Dollars for term is a tradeoff.
The possibility of that swap disappearing is why NHL talks remain at a standstill and more games have disappeared.
The 2012-13 season continued to shrink Monday as the league announced the cancellation of all games through Dec. 30. A total of 526 games have been wiped out, equal to 42.8 percent of the season. The Sabres have lost 35 games, including eight in the two-week chunk that was subtracted Monday.
The league wants a seven-day training camp prior to the start of the season, so it would need to have a collective bargaining agreement with the NHL Players’ Association in place by Christmas Eve in order to avoid more cancellations. The league also said it will not play a season with fewer than 48 games, so the sides have until Jan. 11 or so to avoid a full wipeout.
One of the parties will need to budge on contract term limits in order to finalize a deal.
Before talks imploded last week, the NHL proposed a five-year limit on contracts, with a seven-year exemption for players who re-sign with their current team. The players’ association proposed an eight-year limit.
“Term limits on player contracts,” Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said, “is the hill we will die on.”
The players are nearly as adamant. They view their offer of eight years as a major concession and have no desire to trim contract lengths even more.
The union’s view is that limiting players to five years would dramatically alter the league’s economic system. It would eliminate hockey’s “middle class” and create teams with high-salaried stars surrounded by low-paid youngsters.
Here’s a theoretical example of why:
Minnesota signed defenseman Ryan Suter this summer to a 13-year contract worth $98 million. There were benefits for both sides, with Suter getting a guaranteed paycheck for more than a dozen years and the Wild getting one of the game’s better defensemen for $7.5 million a year.
If Suter could get only five years, however, he would likely demand a higher salary. (The term-for-dollars tradeoff.) If he signed for $10.5 million per season, the Wild would have $3 million less to spend on other players.
To squeeze in a full roster, they might sign three $850,000 rookies rather than a veteran making $2.5 million.
“A star player will always command dollars,” Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller wrote in a text message after serving as a union negotiator last week. “So as cap hits increase for star players it creates a smaller pool of money for a large group of players below. Something has to give.
“Remember, we operate in a cap. I believe that since entry-level players have fewer rights and make less money it will force guys out of the league and shorten overall careers. It will be a league that gets younger and has more player turnover. It will take a few years, but the NHL wants a 10-year CBA, so it will absolutely happen if we accept their terms.”
Miller debated the topic with league owners and said the NHL’s main argument for term limits is they allow small-market teams to compete with large-market clubs. Teams such as Florida and Nashville would be more hesitant to pay players $10.5 million per season than organizations in New York, Toronto or Philadelphia.
“That is true and we respect that,” Miller wrote. “We feel like we have put constraints that accomplish very similar things through salary cap recapture rules, limits on the variance of salary and term-length limits.
“We didn’t ignore their plea, we just propose to accomplish it differently. I think it offers more flexibility for team building.”
There are no plans for the sides to debate the topic again. No meetings are scheduled, though reports say Daly and NHLPA special counsel Steve Fehr have talked informally.
“We are proposing a long-term system that will pay the players billions and billions of dollars over its term, but we have to have a system that works right,” Commissioner Gary Bettman said. “As difficult and as painful as this all is, having an agreement that doesn’t work and takes us back to an era when the game wasn’t healthy and the game on the ice didn’t have the magnificence that it has now, isn’t something that we’re prepared to go back to.”