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The Last Word: Contract term limits will be big issue in upcoming CBA negotiations

Watching how contracts are structured lately makes us realize players are getting ready for another work stoppage, either in 2020 or 2022. Term limits will be an issue.

With NHL commissioner Gary Bettman being inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in November for a career that hasn’t been completed yet, his legacy is secure. So whether or not he presides over NHL Lockout Part IV on behalf of the owners who employ him in either 2020 or 2022 will not have an impact on his entrance into the hallowed shrine.

The good thing is there’s a chance we’ll know in a little more than a year where things will be heading, if we don’t already. Work stoppage-wise, I mean. Anytime before Sept. 1, 2019, the league has the option to terminate the current collective bargaining agreement prior to 2020-21. (The players have the same option, but don’t count on them using it.) If none of those things happen, the CBA will expire prior to the start of 2022-23 unless both sides agree to keep it in effect on a year-to-year basis. Again, don’t count on that happening, either.

So, chances are, we’re headed for another lockout in 2020. And the players are preparing for it, judging by the way they’re structuring their contracts. As of early July, of the 218 players signed through 2020-21, 71 of them having lockout protection in the form of signing bonuses equaling $228.2 million. Of the 79 players signed through 2022-23, 34 of them have the same protection to the tune of $130.5 million.

That’s about a third of the first group and almost half of the second. Whether or not Connor McDavid scores a single goal or even shows up to work for a single day in 2020-21, he’ll cash a $12-million check on July 1, 2020. Steven Stamkos is in for $8.5 million, newly signed John Tavares will be $11.1 million richer and Jamie Benn will try to get by on $7.5 million. Even if he doesn’t stop a single shot, Carey Price will make $8.75 million for not showing up for work.

It will be during that time the millionaires and billionaires will fight each other over a myriad of issues. But after a July 1 kickoff to free agency that was as frenzied as we’ve seen, where does the league stand on the status of term limits on contracts? Six years ago, deputy commissioner Bill Daly said a five-year term limit was “the hill we will die on.” The only problem was that was the same hill on which the players were prepared to die and the two sides compromised by settling on eight years for the team holding the players’ rights, seven if another team poached the player.

There’s some debate as to whether the league will go after term limits in the next round of CBA negotiations. The problem is GMs like the ability to sign players to long-term deals, particularly when it gives them a chance to keep their stars for the balance of their careers. Pittsburgh sure liked the fact it could keep Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in the fold for eight years rather than five. And if you do it right with a star player, you have him for three years in the entry-level contract, then sign him for another eight and have him until he’s 29.

That’s all good, but it’s the seven- and eight-year deals to players who are in their late 20s that have the potential to create problems or dead money. You see, hockey is one of the few places in life where a player often gets paid for what he’s already done – a lot of times for another team – rather than what he’s going to accomplish. That’s why teams continue to sign players who analytics tell us are beyond their primes to deals that are worth much more than they were paid during their most productive years.

The New York Islanders were prepared to pay John Tavares $11 million a year for the next eight years. The San Jose Sharks were prepared to pony up $13 million a year for the next seven years before Tavares settled on the Toronto Maple Leafs for the least money – $11 million a year over seven – for the chance to play for his hometown team. On the same day, Drew Doughty inked a contract extension that will kick in prior to 2019-20 and pay him the same money on an eight-year deal until he’s 37.

Those deals look good…at the moment. But like the quality of play in the 1972 Summit Series, are those contracts going to age poorly? They might. Tavares will be 34 when his deal with the Leafs expires and we all know he’ll probably have four or five Cup rings by then, so it will all be worth it. With the Doughty contract, the Los Angeles Kings are paying him as though he’s going to be an elite NHL defenseman for a total of 19 years. Perhaps Doughty is the next Chris Chelios and that’s what he’ll do. But chances are, that contract will look good for a third, OK for a third and cringe-worthy for a third.

There doesn’t seem to be a groundswell at the league level to try to get term limits in the next deal, but it’s early. One agent I spoke with said he is “100-percent certain” the NHL will try to cut term limits to five years in the next CBA, and perhaps try to reduce that to four for a player signing with a new team. That’s not to say the league will be successful in that quest. After all, it died on the hill on that one the last time. But there are those who believe the GMs in the NHL still need to be saved from themselves and that the teams, regardless of the economic landscape, will want to have as much control over the players as they can get. Term limits would not be the panacea, but they would provide one fewer loophole for GMs to exploit.

An edited version of this story appears in the Season Preview 2018-19 issue of The Hockey News magazine.

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