- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 7, 2003

There are, as usual, dozens of questions concerning the new season, some of critical importance to the future of the NHL. A few that come to mind:

Q: There has been talk about a work stoppage before the start of next season. What’s the story?

A: The current collective bargaining agreement expires Sept.15. If no new CBA has been signed by then, NHL owners plan to lock out the players.

Q: What are the issues? Who wants what?

A: The NHL wants a “hard” salary cap. A small group of owners, less than a third, have become free spenders, and the rest of the owners are being forced to spend more than they can afford. The latter group wants to be protected and keep the former group from undermining the financial stability of the league. The players union doesn’t want a cap at all — baseball doesn’t have a cap and it’s doing … hmm, that’s a story for another time. Despite their no-cap stand, the players probably would agree to a “soft” cap as a last resort. However, the league would be forced to make major concessions to reach that end.

Q. Who’s to blame, owners or players?

A: It’s hard not to blame the small group of owners for dramatically driving up salaries during the past decade. The average salary last season was $1.79million; 10 years ago, it was less than $700,000. There have been some attempts by ownership at legislating their own house and fixing their financial situation, but agents have found loopholes, sometimes with ownership approval.

Q: Didn’t we just go through a work stoppage?

A: Sort of. The owners locked out the players in September 1994, canceling the first half of that season. The lockout lasted more than three months before a new CBA was signed.

Q: Is this one expected to last that long?

A: Much longer. League sources are predicting the lockout could last for one or possibly two full seasons. Union officials are telling their members to expect a work stoppage of at least 18 months.

Q: When labor peace is achieved, will there still be 30 teams?

A: Probably not. A worst-case scenario has six teams folding if the lockout is a long one. Even optimists believe at least two teams will go under if it lasts a full season.

Q: Who’s vulnerable?

A: Several cities. Calgary is on shaky ground, and Ottawa is still emerging from bankruptcy. In the United States, Pittsburgh, Carolina, Nashville, Florida, Phoenix, Buffalo and Atlanta are all on life support, and some could expire or move. And don’t completely count out Washington, which has been losing more than $20million a season on a pretty regular basis.

Q: Speaking of Pittsburgh, what’s the future of Mario Lemieux and his Penguins?

A: News that Lemieux — the owner, captain and top player — will make $10million this season did not go down easily in Pittsburgh, where the financially strapped club has been pushing for a new arena for some time. Faced with the prospect of a long lockout and with no commitment for a new building, a move may be on the horizon.

Q: Paul Kariya, Teemu Selanne, Peter Forsberg, Milan Hejduk, Joe Sakic, et al, can Colorado be stopped?

A: Not if Patrick Roy can be lured out of retirement. Can’t happen? Dominik Hasek is playing in Detroit this season after a brief retirement. Hasek showed two years ago he could lead an old Red Wings team to glory, and there is no reason he can’t do it again. However, dream teams, such as the juggernaut assembled in Denver, have a history of self-destructing.

Q: Will clutching, grabbing and trapping continue to prevent players from providing what fans have said they want, more scoring? Will anybody crack the 100-point barrier?

A: Three players did last season, the first time in this century anybody had more than 100 points. In the late ‘90s, Jaromir Jagr had more than 100 points in back-to-back seasons, and he could well lead a charge again if he stays healthy. He will have Forsberg for company as well as Boston’s Joe Thornton and quite possibly Hejduk. Lemieux? Two factors probably will slow his season. His health usually prevents him from playing a full schedule, and he is not going to have the quality linemates he did in the past.

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