On paper, the NHL is in a great place:
The first professional sports team in Las Vegas last season turned into a smash hit. The Golden Knights were so successful in their inaugural campaign that when the NHL inevitably expands to 32 teams (ahem, Seattle) the price for entry will be $650 million, up $150 million from what Vegas ownership paid.
After years of resistance, the league finally embraced sports gambling; increased betting on hockey could further boost the league's popularity.
Scoring is trending up. The current rate of 3.09 goals per game is the highest since 1995-96.
The next generation of stars have arrived, and many of them (hello, Taylor Hall, Auston Matthews, Nathan MacKinnon) appear far more comfortable flexing their personalities than their predecessors, which could mean crossover appeal.
The salary cap had its biggest year-over-year increase in four years. League revenues are nearly $5 billion (for context, when Gary Bettman took over as commissioner 25 years ago, there were only 24 teams and league revenue was about $400 million).
As Bettman boasted to reporters at the December owners' meetings: "The league has never been healthier. The game has never been healthier. Our franchises have never been healthier. Our fan base has never been better and our fans are the best in all of sports."
And then there's the hovering black cloud. The NHL could be on the verge of its fourth work stoppage in 25 years. In September 2019, both the NHL and National Hockey League Players' Association can notify the other side of its intention to opt out of the current collective bargaining agreement ahead of the 2020-21 season. As it stands, the current CBA lasts through the 2021-22 season.
"I think [last] season was big for the NHL," Edmonton Oilers star Connor McDavid said. "I think it was the most money that they've made in a long time, just with Vegas doing so well, and everything like that. I think the sport is doing well, and it's growing. I was over [in Europe] for the world championships and it's strong over there. We're hitting markets that have been untapped before. Nobody wants to see that momentum stopped."
The thought of another work stoppage is daunting, and for some players, increasingly real. Hall, the reigning league MVP, said he is "pretty nervous" about the prospect of another lockout, after enduring one after his second season in the league.
"Well, I was pretty confident there wouldn't be one last time and, sure enough, we didn't play until January," Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews said. "So it's not really in our hands. The league has been known to do that quite a bit in the last three opportunities they had, so it's unfortunate. So I'd say, I'm not confident at all."
Some players are incredulous that history could repeat itself. "Just my gut?" Nashville Predators center Ryan Johansen said. "I really find it hard to believe there could be another lockout so soon from the last one."
Others have expressed optimism that it won't come to that. "We're pretty confident," Matthews, the Toronto Maple Leafs center, said. "I mean, we're the players. We understand it's a business, but at the same time, we're the ones playing. I think everybody wants to see everyone happy and make things work out because nobody wants to see a lockout."
Matthews and McDavid entered the league in 2016 and 2015, respectively, and are unquestionably two of the league's brightest stars. Matthews is up for new a contract at the end of this season. McDavid has the league's highest cap hit at $12.5 million. He understands the importance of his exercising his voice when negotiations heat up.
"This CBA is the one that is going to affect me the most," the 21-year-old McDavid said. "We are at a time where the league is as young as it has ever been. There are a lot of star players that are young. If we can stand together, we're the ones that owners are going to have to face for a long time."
Here's a look at the issues for which the players will be fighting most fervently:
The biggest sticking point for players: escrow
The NHL and NHLPA have begun preliminary talks, and there are numerous items on the agenda. For example, Vegas Golden Knights defenseman Nate Schmidt was suspended for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing drugs, despite having an expert testify at his hearing that the amount of the substance found in his test was the equivalent of a pinch of salt in an Olympic-size swimming pool. Identifying a minimum threshold for positive tests? Expect that to be something the NHLPA brings up in discussions.
But in a poll of more than 30 high-profile players around the league, two sticking points emerged as the highest priority: escrow and Olympic participation.
Let's begin with escrow. In the current CBA, players and owners receive an equal split of hockey-related revenues. A percentage of a player's salary is withheld every season to cover potential shortfalls. After the season, total revenue is calculated, and players may be refunded a portion of the escrow.
It's a huge point of contention for players. "The No. 1 things fans don't know about is that we're paying 10 to 20 percent [of our salary] in escrow every year," Toews said. "So that's the biggest thing on our list."
Adds Hall: "We're paying so much on our checks every two weeks, it's like astronomical. Hopefully we can bring something back."
Minnesota Wild center Eric Staal, who made his NHL debut in 2003, says he has a solution for how to negate escrow. "You have to freeze the cap," Staal said. "It's a fine line because if you freeze the salary cap, there will be a few guys that likely won't get jobs, so that's the hard thing. Because the cap isn't escalating and those large-market teams aren't spending on those guys, so there will be a few guys who won't get jobs because there won't be room.
"Obviously the lower-end teams don't spend [to the cap]. So they're probably NHL-caliber players, but lower-market teams don't spend, and the top teams that would have brought them in to fit them under the cap don't have any room. But it's 50-50, at some point it will even out and the escrow will be gone."
Olympic participation is important
There's no clause in the current collective bargaining agreement that ensures NHL players are allowed to participate in the Olympics. Last February, the NHL did not stop its season to allow players to compete in the 2018 PyeongChang Games, the first time it did so in 20 years. The decision came from a series of disputes between the NHL, International Ice Hockey Federation and International Olympic Committee. Ultimately, the NHL said it did not find benefit from disrupting its season (and absorbing potential injury risk to star players) and the event gave the league no financial gain.
When the NHL made the decision about the 2018 Games, many players said they felt like pawns.
"The Olympics are an obvious thing, and it seems like it's out of our hands," said Washington Capitals winger T.J. Oshie, a breakout star for Team USA at the 2014 Olympics. "I think it's unfair that that's a bargaining chip, and something they know we love to do, and I think is very good for our game, and can only grow our game, which should be good for the NHL. I get a little fired up on the Olympics one."
That desire extends across borders. "Going to the Olympic Games is most important thing for me," said Washington Capitals center Evgeny Kuznetsov, who has represented Russia in international competitions. "All of those small details [in the CBA], I don't really pay attention because I trust the [NHL]PA guys, I think they are going to take care of us and do what's best for us. My job is to play hockey. But when it comes to Olympics, I care a lot."
And Canadian Matt Duchene, a center for the Ottawa Senators: "That was one of the best experiences of my life, going over there [in 2014]. Whether you're on the [Olympic] team, or not, it's a great experience for our league and it's great for our fans."
"The big picture"
NHL players and agents are bracing for the worst. Since the 2015 season, the trend in big contracts is to offer lockout protection: big payouts made in the form of signing bonuses. Consider the recent extension of Winnipeg Jets captain Blake Wheeler: his lowest two years of base salary are 2020-21 and 2022-23. Or Tyler Seguin's deal in Dallas, which includes an $8 million signing bonus but only $1 million base salary for 2020-21. Most of John Tavares' earnings with Toronto come via signing bonuses.
Larkin gets a bit fiery when talking about the upcoming labor talks. "As players, I don't think we're really happy with the deal we got," he said. "I know the league is in great shape, but we want to continue to grow the game, and that's what it's about for us players: growing the game internationally and right here in smaller markets, getting on TV more, doing more for social media, and overall making the game bigger."
A work stoppage would hamper that. Some players see the arrival of Seattle as incentive for the owners to get something done, and perhaps it's a bargaining chip for players. "With Seattle coming in, that would not be good for them, the owners, and everything going on up there," Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Seth Jones said.
"Hopefully the owners are willing to negotiate in a timely manner so we don't have to waste time and get to that," Boston Bruins center Patrice Bergeron added. "To me, everybody [will] lose if you miss time. Players, owners and the fans."
For a player like Tavares, the details aren't as significant as what these talks could represent. "I could talk about a lot of stuff on the money side, or the Olympics, but I think the biggest thing is the big picture," Tavares said. "And that's having a better partnership with the league, where this doesn't become an issue every five or six years, or however long the agreement is. So we can work together and grow the game and the business side is very stable for both sides."
New York Islanders winger Anders Lee knows these talks are important. But he's also focused on something bigger than minutiae. "I want to make sure guys are getting taken care of, whether it's healthcare or a future pension or something like that," Lee said. "Down the road, that someone has their back whether it's the [NHL]PA or the league, just to set guys up for after this. We play hockey for 10-15 years -- and that's [someone with] an incredible career -- so there's a lot of life to be lived after that."