Last week during the debacle that happened in New York City, Gary Bettman let it be known that the league would not play less than a 48 game schedule. If you recall, that is how many games they played in the lockout shortened 94-95 season. I do find it peculiar that Bettman is committed to a 48 game schedule when in the 04-05 lockout the league did not cancel the season until February 16th. Surely the league was not going to squeeze in 48 games in that short time frame. Now it is possible after the disaster that was the 04-05 lockout that the league and its owners have decided that they will not wait that long to make a decision on the season, which seems reasonable enough.
Earlier this week the NHL decided to cancel games up to December 30th ahead of their meeting with the NHLPA on Wednesday. This is another interesting development in this mess of a lockout. Any reasonable person following along from the outside can realize that the two sides are very close to a deal. They have agreed on the revenue split and the make whole issue, which were the two biggest stumbling blocks preventing them from getting a deal done. Now there are three issues that set the two sides apart:
1. Contract Length – The owners want five year max contracts with a the provision of seven year max contracts if a team resigns their own player. The NHLPA has offered eight year and ten year contract lengths respectively.
2. CBA Length - The NHL wants a ten year CBA with an opt out after eight years. The NHLPA has offered an eight year CBA with an opt out after six years.
3. Contract Variance – The NHL would like a maximum 5% variance on contracts from year to year. The NHLPA has countered with a 25% variance.
A sane person can see that there is a middle ground to be found on these issues and there is a deal to be made. Whether these two sides want to make a deal is the biggest question. However, I am inclined to think that cooler heads will prevail this week/weekend and we will have an agreement on a proposal early next week. If that is the case we can expect the season to start on New Years Eve/New Years Day…coincidence? That is about three weeks earlier than the shortened 94-95 season.
So how many games might the league try to play? 48 games is clearly the minimum here and if a deal gets done in the next week or two there is no reason why they can’t play more than that. However, with 30 teams, 15 per conference, there really isn’t an easy way to do a 48 game schedule. The next logical step is a 52 game schedule, where each team will play all teams in their division eight times plus a home and home against the others in their conference. There could be a 56 game schedule where teams would play each team in their conference four times, but this would produce less inter-division games and more travel. A real long shot would be a 64 game schedule. Given the restrictions on time, squeezing in a 64 game schedule would be a mistake for the league. A 64 game season would see each team play the others in their division six times and the other conference teams four times. The common denominator of all these scenarios is that there will be no cross conference games. This will minimize travel for teams in the shortened season and allow for more games against division and conference rivals.
No matter when a deal gets settled, whether it be this weekend or in January, I think we will see the league play a 52 game schedule. It makes the most sense logistically and it will allow for a reasonable amount of spacing between games.
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