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Gary Bettman: NHL is ‘business as usual’ in pre-CBA summer; no deadline for Coyotes sale

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BOCA RATON, Fla. -- Three words sum up the brief labor update the NHL general managers received Wednesday morning: business as usual.

The collective bargaining agreement expires Sept. 15, and negotiations have yet to begin on a new one. On the surface, that causes complications for the GMs as they operate in the interim.

As revenues continue to grow, the salary cap continues to grow under the terms of the current CBA. It could rise significantly this summer from its current level at $64.3 million, but it could drop significantly in the fall if the League receives concessions from the players in the next CBA. There could be other changes, too, including a lower salary floor.

How can the GMs navigate the trade and free-agent markets when they don't know what the system will be next season?

"I'm not going to comment as to what the next CBA may look like," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said as the GM meetings concluded at the Boca Beach Club. "But the CBA that we currently have is in effect until Sept. 15, and we told clubs to continue to operate under the CBA. Business as usual."

There is little to discuss at this point. The league already solicited opinions last summer when deputy commissioner Bill Daly held small-group sessions with general managers. Bettman and Daly have a firm grasp on what the GMs feel is and isn't working in the current CBA.

"Structurally, the fundamentals of the system have done what we expected, but I assume that when we sit down to bargain both sides are going to have issues they want to focus on," Bettman said. "But I have no intention of being specific yet on where we are."

Bettman said the NHL is providing financial information to the NHL Players' Association. But the sides haven't even decided when they will begin formal negotiations, so Bettman and Daly didn't have much to tell the GMs.

"The update was there is no update," Bettman said. "There's nothing going on."

That isn't necessarily a big deal.

Don Fehr, the union's new executive director, has been getting up to speed and has maintained that there is plenty of time to reach a new deal. Bettman has maintained the same. "I'm not particularly concerned about the timeline," the commissioner said.

The uncertainty isn't necessarily a big deal, either. The GMs have a firm grasp of what the League's bargaining position will be — including its vision of the next salary cap, which obviously would be the most restrictive scenario.

As an NHL executive told me not long before these meetings: "Flexibility in cap space is going to become really important again with the next CBA. I'm sure it'll only become tighter, if you believe Mr. Bettman, and with that said, we want to make sure that we react wisely."

There is talk behind the scenes that there will be some mechanism in the new CBA that will allow GMs to get under a lower cap, such as a one-time buyout. But Bettman isn't about to talk about it with reporters.

"I'm not going there, guys," Bettman said. "There's no reason to do that. I'm certainly not going to be discussing issues I haven't discussed with the union. Why would I want to do that?"

Let's face it: If the GMs came out of their meetings Wednesday worrying about spending too much this summer, what would that say? It would say that they have the money to spend to — or close to — the cap under the current CBA. That would make it hard for the league to argue the cap needs to come down in the next CBA, right?

The GMs, who can be fined heavily for talking too much about collective bargaining, recited the party line Wednesday.

"Every team's different in that respect," said Paul Holmgren of the Philadelphia Flyers, a high-revenue, high-spending team. "The message is for us, it's business as usual. Sooner or later there will be a deal made, and we'll play hockey."

Said Lou Lamoriello of the New Jersey Devils, a team in financial trouble: "I think you have to be cautious every year. Everybody has their own individual situation with budgets. Everybody has to handle and look in the mirror and do what they think is right."

Bettman addressed some other issues with reporters Wednesday. The highlights:

The future of the Phoenix Coyotes

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Bettman said the sale of the Coyotes remains "a work in progress." The NHL bought the team out of bankruptcy and has been trying to find a buyer to keep it in Glendale, Ariz.

"There are still a number of groups that are engaged in the process and we're still in close contact with the city," Bettman said. "At some point we may have to [turn the page]. I'm hoping not to get to that point, and I'm not setting a deadline for it."

Not even a vague deadline?

"Nah," Bettman said. "I don't think so."

Bettman said the NHL has not begun exploring relocation and has not even come up with a secondary schedule -- including, say, Quebec City -- as a contingency.

Concussions

Bettman said the NHL will not release specific concussion numbers because of medical privacy concerns. The League has said concussions are roughly flat compared to where they were last season, while the man games lost has gone up.

"I don't think the number of incidents is up. I just think we're doing a better job of diagnosing them," Bettman said. "I think we're diagnosing more aggressively and we're treating more conservatively, which is why you're seeing more man games lost."

After two years of making major changes, the GMs discussed making some tweaks but ultimately decided to leave the game as it is. They have banned all targeted hits to the head and strengthened the boarding rule. New NHL disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan now gives a video explanation for each suspension and warns players who have come close to the line. The league and union are looking into equipment changes.

"It's a subject that continues to get a great deal of attention and energy and effort from us," Bettman said. "What we're doing from a player safety standpoint, I think we're changing the culture of the game."

Fighting

Increasing the penalty for fighting was not even on the radar at these meetings, let alone the agenda, even though officials at lower levels have been discussing it.

"We watch everything that goes on in our world," Bettman said. "There may be reasons that we do and reasons that we don't do what others do. What do they say when you watch some of those TV commercials? Don't try this at home. We are at a different level than some of the other leagues, obviously, and we'll continue to focus on our game and what we think is and isn't appropriate for us."

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