Deadline would aid negotiations

Another "crucial" week is replaced by a "very critical" week and the National Hockey League season continues to hang in the balance.

Or so we're led to believe.

The season is hanging by a thread, the clock is ticking.

All of these are phrases we have heard, said or even written in recent days, and none seems particularly accurate as each day passes.

In fact, despite dire media predictions and inexhaustible pessimism from players that all is lost, the true end of the 2004-05 season might well be several weeks away.

Not that the owners want anyone -- least of all the players -- to think so. Better to negotiate with the other side in the dark.

Pity the fan who must endure two or three more weeks of false drama over every secretive meeting, phone call or e-mail between the two warring sides in this dispute.

A week ago, a top negotiator told ESPN.com the coming week was "crucial" to saving the season. The talks then proceeded with tortoise-like urgency, the two sides not even bothering to bring their bosses into the fray. The discussions ended Thursday night with NHLPA senior director Ted Saskin saying the two sides still have significant "philosophical differences."

Gee, do you think?

No new talks were scheduled after the last session ended Thursday evening in New York. No one from either side would speak publicly about what happened or what might happen next.

Not to worry. If these talks aren't going anywhere, apparently neither is the season.

There has been only one true deadline in this dispute -- midnight on Sept. 15, the expiration of the previous collective bargaining agreement. That moment came and went without any real attempt at finding a resolution; the previous bargaining session was a one-day meeting on Sept. 9. That came as no surprise, as both sides were determined to test the other's mettle.

Now, as January turns into February, in the absence of a formal deadline, there has been an almost total absence of true negotiation.

Coincidence? We think not.

One of the obvious reasons for not setting a firm deadline, from the owners' perspective, is that it distorts the balance of power. A deadline gives the negotiations focus, a framework, urgency and a sense of purpose. Veteran mediators who spoke with ESPN.com last week said it's rare that a labor dispute is settled without one.

And so, whatever power the owners might have had from declining to set a drop-dead date has turned out to be illusory. The longer the talks go without a deadline being imposed, the more time Bob Goodenow and the NHLPA can wait before making that hardest of decisions: to take a salary cap or not. The longer the owners wait before drawing a line in the sand, the more it appears they don't really have an idea where that line should be drawn.

Conventional wisdom says the the owners are truly prepared to wait until the NHLPA freezes over before settling. Yet the longer this tired process drags on, the more it appears owners are every bit as reluctant to give away the season as the players.

Carolina Hurricanes owner Peter Karmanos insists the league will happily wait two years to get the right system in place. Of course, the 'Canes would be hard-pressed not to make the playoffs if they played only a five-game regular season and got to play all five at home.

Given that a dramatically shortened season increases the chances of less-talented teams to make the playoffs (a shorter period of time in which flaws and inconsistencies might be revealed), owners across the NHL landscape must be saying, "Let's wait a little bit longer."

Depending on individual team revenue streams, each home playoff date can mean in excess of $1 million profit. So how does the flushing of the balance of the season play in Nashville? After failing to make the playoffs for the first five years of their existence, the Predators surged into the postseason last spring, battling Detroit in an entertaining six-game first-round series that saw fans rally around the team in unprecedented fashion. If they play a shortened season, the Preds should be very much in the hunt.

A similar case holds true in Atlanta, where the Thrashers have the hottest young goaltending prospect in years in Kari Lehtonen, a revamped defense and the dynamic forward combo of Dany Heatley and Ilya Kovalchuk. (True, Kovalchuk has signed for the rest of the season in Russia, but there are few Russian wrinkles that can't be smoothed out with a big check.) Think the new ownership group in Atlanta is happy to keep the prospect of its first playoff berth alive as long as possible?

The NHL's top negotiator, Bill Daly, says the league continues to map out scenarios for a shortened season. He also acknowledges that at some point too much time will have passed to have a meaningful season. But he has steadfastly refused to discuss how many games constitutes meaningful.

Predicting how many games would be acceptable is akin to predicting a drop-dead date. Still, if the NHL wants to play 30 games, it can easily do so from the beginning of March to the middle of April and then hold its lucrative playoff tournament without batting an eye. Throw in a week of signing players and a week of training camp and that still leaves two weeks to get a deal done.

Tick, tock. Ho, hum.

Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.