While the decision on whether or not to trigger the annual 5 percent growth factor on the salary cap often has been treated like a foregone conclusion, it should not be this season.
The issue of the growth factor, commonly referred to as the "inflator" or "escalator," has become a hot topic of conversation amongst players with growing concerns about increasing escrow rates and the potential implications on revenue with the falling Canadian dollar.
Several sources told ESPN.com that there is a divide between two camps of players: those who are already under contract for next season and those who are pending unrestricted free agents. Those already set on their current deals may be against the idea of increasing the salary cap, deterred by the thought of another season of high escrow. (Escrow rates began at 14 percent this season and were adjusted to 16 percent in January. The final calculation will be determined in the fall.) Those players up for new deals, however, would ideally like more money in the pot. The current salary cap is at $69 million. At last week's general managers meetings, the rough projection provided by commissioner Gary Bettman was $71.5 million -- assuming the inflator was triggered.
For players, there is a growing sense of skepticism about areas of potential revenue growth, such as television deals, outdoor games, etc., compounded with concerns about the devaluation of the Canadian dollar.
"Especially with some of the uncertainty this year, revenue-wise and with the weakness of the Canadian dollar, the dilemma you have is there are guys whose contracts are set that don't like that big escrow amount that constantly keeps coming and guys that are up in the free-agent market don't want dollars taken away so that they can't get the best deal possible," explained veteran agent Steve Bartlett. "At the end of day, it is a player issue."
Those conversations are expected to intensify in the next few months leading up to this season's NHLPA executive board meetings, which are slated to take place in early June.
"It's going to be a battle," one team executive predicted.
"Given that the value of player contracts over the past few seasons has been significantly less than full face-value, players will be discussing whether or not a growth factor at 5 percent should be applied when setting the payroll range for the 2015-16 season," the NHL Players' Association said in a statement to ESPN.com.
According to the current collective bargaining agreement, the upper and lower limits of the payroll range "shall be adjusted upward by a factor of five (5) percent in each league year (yielding the adjusted midpoint, which shall then become the midpoint of the payroll range) unless or until either party to this agreement proposes a different growth factor based on actual revenue experience and/or projections, in which case the parties shall discuss and agree upon a new factor."
The 5 percent growth factor has been triggered each year since 2005 with the exception of the 2006-07 season, prior to which the NHLPA proposed a 0 percent growth factor based on projected revenue and escrow rates. The NHL agreed to the proposal.
Neither the NHLPA nor the NHL has the right to unilaterally apply the growth rate, but if the NHLPA proposes a different growth factor, the two sides would both have to sign off on that percentage.
"Our position on this is that the CBA imputes a 5 percent inflator every year UNLESS the parties agree to something else. And that is the way it has operated in every year since 2005. So, it's our position, that the union can't unilaterally lower or raise the inflator without our agreement," deputy commissioner Bill Daly told ESPN.com via email.
The CBA does not explicitly spell out what would happen in the event that the two sides do not agree by July 1. Multiple sources expressed doubt that the league would object, given that the split between the league and players for hockey-related revenues remains the same, though others have pointed out that the league may be concerned about how a more restrictive cap might affect big-market teams.
Regardless of whether the NHL is sweating the matter, the players will have to hash out differences between now and June before making a decision. And that process could prove difficult.
"I think there will be some healthy arguments and disagreements about it," Bartlett said. "Even if the intentions for the system are well-intentioned, it has created some Hatfield vs. McCoys [tensions] in what it creates for guys at different points of their contract."