Next move by the union could be vital

The ball is now in the NHLPA’s court.

Which, depending on how that plays out, could mean it ends up squarely back in the NHL’s court soon enough.

The players’ union began working on a new proposal Monday night and was set to continue working on it Tuesday.

If that proposal comes back once again asking for a guaranteed player amount -- the union has been steadfast throughout this lockout in saying the players won’t make a dime less than the $1.883 billion in total salaries they made last season -- the next meeting will be a short one.

But if the NHLPA is willing to drop that guarantee -- a source within the players’ camp said that was being contemplated -- then, perhaps, depending on how the new proposal is framed, there might finally be some traction here. But one has to assume that if the union is willing to drop that guaranteed player amount, and that’s an if, you'd better believe part of the NHLPA’s proposal definitely will have the league drop a number of its player contracting rights demands, and so it should be.

If the players are going to move on core economics, the league must move on player contracting rights if we have any possibility of a deal this season.

The NHLPA’s fear, according to sources, is that it doesn’t want to move on core economics only to have the league not move an inch on player contracting rights. It’s the same reason the league hasn’t budged on player contracting rights before knowing when/if the NHLPA will move on core economics, with the league concerned that, if it backed off, officially, on some player contracting rights, the NHLPA still would demand a guaranteed player amount on core economics.

The league feels it has moved on the "make-whole" provision -- offering up $211 million to players outside the system to help protect some of their existing contracts -- plus has moved on revenue sharing among 30 teams, a key NHLPA issue, moving the total up a few weeks ago to $220 million. The league got frustrated that, despite its doing these things, NHLPA executive director Don Fehr still maintained a desire to protect the guaranteed player amount of $1.883 billion in salaries (the NHLPA says it obviously would be willing to adjust that figure in a shortened season, but, for the overall deal, that’s been the base of its framework economically).

Of course, although the league has been frustrated from that point of view, the NHLPA will point out that it’s the players doing all the moving in this deal. And there’s some truth to that. It’s the players coming down from 57 percent of hockey-related revenue no matter how this CBA ends up looking. But then again, the players should have known it was going to be that kind of negotiation more than a year ago when NBA and NFL players were scaled back in their share of revenues in their respective labor deals. That was always going to be the context of this NHL negotiation: the owners getting the players to back up, just like in other sports.

So, really, the goal here for Fehr and the players should have always been about making the most out of a negative context, cutting the best possible deal out of a reality in which players were going to get downgraded in their percentage from the pie.

And from that perspective, I believe Fehr has done a good job for players in terms of pushing the league this far, getting the league to move on "make whole," on revenue sharing among teams, plus other items.

But it’s clear it would take an ugly war to get the league and owners to sign off on any deal that gives that guaranteed player amount Fehr has been striving for all this time.

So the question in the next 24-48 hours: Will the NHLPA make that next significant step and, in turn, put pressure on the NHL if a new proposal has serious potential of ending the lockout?

Or does Fehr feel the union should wait a bit longer before making that type of concession on core economics?

This negotiation either gains serious traction or falls off the rails again. And if it falls off the rails again, you have to begin to worry about having a season at all.