Lockout staredown is all about timing as NHL, NHLPA near point of no return

There is still time, and that is both a positive and the problem.

The NHL has set a Jan. 11 deadline to reach a labor agreement with the NHL Players' Association, so the league can drop the puck Jan. 19 and play a 48-game schedule. Commissioner Gary Bettman has said he can't imagine wanting to play fewer games than that.

That means the sides still have more than a week to hammer out a deal. That also means the sides still have more than a week to haggle and squeeze and stare each other down.

This isn't about the point of diminishing returns, when the same amount of work results in less gain. We passed that point long ago. It's almost hard to remember now, but the sides have actually tackled the biggest issues – like the 50-50 split of hockey-related revenue and the $300 million to cushion the players' fall from 57 percent.

That's why I maintain they're close. That's why I continue to believe that in the end they will make a deal and play. Again, there is too little left to gain for anyone and too much to lose for everyone to cancel the entire season.

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This is about the point of no return now, making sure you push as far as you can, making sure the other side won't budge anymore. We're down to issues like pensions for millionaires, limiting contracts to six or seven or eight years, the salary cap in the second year of what could be a 10-year collective bargaining agreement – important issues, contentious issues, but issues that should not be deal-breakers.

The sides have traded proposals in recent days. They have stopped posturing in public. They are working with a mediator again. They talked late into the night Wednesday, the players electing not to dissolve the union before their internal midnight deadline, keeping the nuclear option in reserve.

In short, they're serious and slowly making more progress, inching the final few yards. No, it didn't have to be this way. It shouldn't have been this way. But it often is this way with smart, stubborn leaders like Bettman and NHLPA executive director Don Fehr, and it often is this way with big-money, big-business deals. It wasn't inevitable, but it was predictable.

"I always feel it's about deadlines," said Tampa Bay Lightning veteran Martin St. Louis, "so we'll see what happens."

St. Louis could have said that anytime recently, but he said that when I was working on a Fehr profile in September.

September of 2011.

Let's look at the biggest issues remaining:

– Pensions: Most people no longer have a defined-benefit pension plan, and few make what NHL players do. Can't the players save some of their ample salaries and take responsibility for their own retirements? Sure.

But in the context of this negotiation, this isn't really about security and comfort in the players' golden years. Pensions are important to the union because they affect all players. Pensions fit into the larger theme of these talks – the players wanting the owners to assume more risk in exchange for enormous concessions, at the same time the owners want to reduce their risks and long-term liabilities, not add to them.

Pensions also were the one little victory the players thought they had won last month, when Fehr held his infamous news conference after the bargaining sessions in New York. He had been asking repeatedly what the players were getting out of this agreement. So when he said the sides were "clearly very close, if not on top of one another," I asked him what the players were getting out of this then. His answer: Pensions.

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But the owners have changed their position since, and the deal the players thought they had apparently isn't there anymore, or there was just miscommunication or misunderstanding. Bettman has called pensions "a very complicated issue," which they are, especially because of the differing laws in Canada and the United States. It is also a very emotional issue for the players, and it feeds the festering mistrust and bitterness.

– Contract limits: Throughout this negotiation, the feeling was that if the players agreed to the owners' economic terms, the owners would drop their draconian contracting demands. Well, the players agreed to the owners' main economic terms, and the owners dropped their attacks on entry-level contracts, arbitration rights and free agency eligibility.

But the owners kept demanding tight contract limits and salary variances. Keep in mind that the players had unlimited contract lengths before and have proposed an eight-year limit – a significant concession. Also keep in mind that the owners never insisted contract lengths were a hill to die on – as deputy commissioner Bill Daly put it, echoing one of the owners' comments in a private session – until last month.

The owners are now at a six-year max – or seven for teams to re-sign their own players – and reportedly a 20-percent variance. At least entering the latest round of proposals, the players were still at an eight-year max, with the lowest year within 25 percent of the highest year. They don't like the idea of more term to re-sign, because it gives a player's current team too much leverage and could keep players off the free-agent market.

The NHL wants to limit long-term liabilities and stop back-diving, cap-circumventing contracts. But doesn't the NHLPA's proposal accomplish that? Isn't there a compromise here? Is this really a hill to die on?

– The 2013-14 salary cap: If the NHL plays this season, it will have a prorated $70.2 million salary cap. The players wanted a $67.25 million cap after that – and they wanted it never to go down. They have reportedly lowered that to $65 million. The owners still want to go straight to a $60 million cap in '13-14 even though that would cause problems for many teams and unsigned players. The owners and players have reportedly agreed on two compliance buyouts for '13-14, which would count against the players' share but not the cap.

The NHL would have a case for a $60 million cap if the NHLPA wanted to cap escrow, meaning the players wanted to limit the amount of money the owners could withhold from their checks and thus limit the amount of money the owners could keep if revenues weren't high enough. That likely would give the players more than 50 percent of HRR.

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The players wanted to talk about that. But they never proposed it formally, and they reportedly have dropped the idea. So that means this isn't about finances. No matter what the cap is – $65 million, $100 million – the players will still be limited to 50 percent of HRR. If there is a $65 million cap, teams would have roster flexibility and owners would have financial protection. If the concern is poorer franchises, there is no reason the NHL can't keep the floor low enough to accommodate them.

Conspiracy theorists would say the NHL is trying to redistribute talent from the haves to the have-nots. At the very least, this seems like an attempt to reward those who listened to Bettman and punish those who did not. As one team executive told me in February: "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." Fine. But is a $5 million difference in the cap in Year 2 of a 10-year CBA worth wiping out Year 1?

No. Of course not. And both Bettman and Fehr know it. This could still blow up. The NHLPA could still dissolve, as a short-term tactic or a long-term plan. We could still have chaos and court battles and a canceled season. But more than likely these are the last days of a drawn-out drama that has gone too far and – sigh – still not far enough yet.

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