Commissioner: NHL salary cap could jump by $4M next season

NEW YORK -- The NHL salary cap could jump by over $4 million next season if the league meets its revenue projections.

"We believe that there's a good probability that the escrow will be paid off this season. Which means the flat cap would be replaced by a bigger increase," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said after the league's board of governors meeting Tuesday in Manhattan.

The NHL and NHL Players' Association signed a new collective bargaining agreement in 2020. They agreed to keep the salary cap flat at $81.5 million until hockey-related revenue surpassed $3.3 billion for the previous season. The salary cap increased for the first time under that CBA this season, up $1 million to $82.5 million.

The "flat cap" was necessary because the players owed an estimated $1 billion in debt to the owners due to the teams' COVID-19 pandemic revenue losses. When that debt is paid off in full, the cap moves to a "computational cap" linked to revenue. Bettman said he believes that debt could be paid off this season, with the cap rising between $4 million and $4.5 million for the 2023-24 season, which is ahead of schedule.

Bettman said revenues were "pretty vibrant" and that the league did around $5.4 billion in hockey-related revenue last season, which was about a half-billion dollars more than the NHL had projected.

The commissioner said that having the debt fully paid by the end of the season "is going to be close." If it doesn't happen, the salary cap will rise by just $1 million for 2023-24.

World Cup's Russia problem

The NHL expects to hold the next World Cup of Hockey in February 2024, but some of the nations expected to participate are raising protests about the involvement of Russian players.

"The conflict in Ukraine makes it difficult to deal with the Russian issue. We've certainly heard from some of the countries who would participate [in the World Cup] that they would have objections about Russian participation," deputy commissioner Bill Daly said.

The NHL had anticipated some kind of adjustment to the Russian team's status if Russia's war on Ukraine was still ongoing at the time of the World Cup. Initially, the hope was that the Russian players would simply play under a neutral name or flag, much like they did in the Olympics after the Russian Olympic Committee was suspended in a doping scandal. But Daly said the other World Cup countries aren't satisfied by that.

"We considered that as an alternative. Based on what I understand to be the concerns, it doesn't appear that's going to be a fix for the other countries," Daly said.

The NHL said the objections are a "relative fact" in the decision-making process about Russian player participation but that no determination about their status has been made -- nor have any plans about the World Cup logistics been finalized with just over a year before the event is scheduled.

Ian Cole investigation

The NHL board of governors wasn't given a report on the investigation into Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Ian Cole, but Bettman addressed its potential fallout.

The NHL said Saturday that it found no evidence to substantiate sexual misconduct allegations against Cole, which were made anonymously on social media. The Lightning then reinstated Cole, who had been suspended with pay by the team and missed the first three games.

Bettman said Jared Maples, the NHL's chief of security, and David Zimmerman, the league's chief legal officer, "did as comprehensive an investigation that you can do off an anonymous tweet."

The NHLPA released a statement after Cole was reinstated that said "players should never be subject to suspension or discipline in response to unsubstantiated and anonymous accusations," and that "removing a player from his team under these circumstances is inappropriate and grossly unfair."

Bettman said he respected the union's view on the matter but backed Tampa Bay's decision to suspend Cole.

"The Lightning decided it might be a distraction in the short term, and clubs are free to do that," Bettman said.

He said similar situations will be handled on a case-by-case basis in the future.

"At the end of the day, I'm always concerned when allegations are made. But when they're made anonymously, they're kind of difficult to deal with," Bettman said.