PALM BEACH, Fla. – At a Board of Governors meeting that produced so little news, perhaps the most fascinating thing I learned was a point that it was Not formally discussed.
At least it was for me.
I conducted an informal poll of governors for two and a half days. The question was simple: do you support the idea of a play-in before the Stanley Cup playoffs?
I asked 12 governors. It was a 12-0 in favor of the NHL, which added a play-in round. I couldn’t find a single different voice.
Well I’m sure if I could get governors from all 32 teams I would find some in the opposition. But still: 12 governors, 12 people who like the idea of a play-in.
None of the governors wanted to talk about it officially because they know they would incur the wrath of Commissioner Gary Bettman if they did.
Because Bettman remains steadfast against the idea. He has stuck to this very consistently over the past few years. Well, I asked Bettman the question again Tuesday after the conclusion of the two-day Board of Governors meeting:
What about the idea of adding a play-in to the playoffs like the NBA did?
“If you say to them, ‘Would you be open to a play-in?’ Some of them might say, ‘We can talk about it.’ We don’t get that feedback,” Bettman said. “People think the system we have now works extraordinarily well and honestly in sports playoffs there’s nothing better than our first round. So I don’t have a huge appetite for change.”
Maybe it’s true that owners and team bosses aren’t in his ear yet. It certainly wasn’t the time for this during the pandemic. There were other priorities.
But the more I hear from some of these clubs, the more I have a feeling that there will come a moment in the next few years when there will be a push for a play-in. And the tipping point could come if US TV affiliates ESPN and TNT decide to get behind the idea and pressure Bettman to think about it.
I asked Bettman on Tuesday why he didn’t like the idea.
“You want to solve a problem that doesn’t exist,” Bettman said.
Another reporter asked about possible additional revenue that could be derived.
“I’m not sure if it increases revenue,” Bettman said. “Diluting the regular season and diluting the playoffs doesn’t make much sense to me. I think having a system where half the teams make the playoffs and half don’t, I think that’s perfect.”
This week marks the 30th anniversary of Bettman’s election as NHL Commissioner at the Board of Governors meeting at this very hotel.
Back then, 16 out of 24 teams made the playoffs. Before that it was 16 out of 21. Which of course was silly. Far too easy. But now it’s 16 out of 32.
It’s absolutely the right time to discuss the merits of a play-in. The most talked about concept would see #7 vs. #10 and #8 vs. #9 in each conference in best-of-three series held quickly over a maximum of three days. No trip; The higher seed gets to host the entire series. Some would like to see that.
There would be more teams playing relevant games in March, no question.
And that concept still protects the traditional 16-team playoff field. It’s a play-in to get into 16.
But for any of this to see the light of day, the owners have to start backchanneling with the client. And I would suggest that this needs to be done at the Executive Committee level. That’s the smaller group of owners who have the commissioner’s ear.
Bettman was asked about the ongoing Canada Junior World Team 2018 league investigation, which appears to be nearing completion.
“We still have work to do,” Bettman said. “We are aware that two further investigations are still ongoing. We still have some coordination work to do, particularly with the Players’ Association, but I think we’re definitely on the home stretch.”
What is apparent is that the NHL does not wish to interfere in any way with the ongoing police investigation in London, Ontario, which means that I believe the league is sensitive to the fact that the results of their investigation are before the London police announced that they are done with their criminal investigation could be a problem.
Bettman was specifically asked if the league would announce its results before London Police.
“That would be a matter for the London Police. If they asked us not to make things public, we wouldn’t do it,” Bettman said.
It has been a tradition since 2005 for the league to give the governors a sneak peek/prediction of next season’s salary cap at this meeting.
To that end, it appears that despite some hopes at the October meeting that the cap could increase by more than $4 million if a certain revenue threshold is hit this season, HRR will miss, players won’t quite have paid off the escrow from the pandemic, so we’re likely only expecting the cap to increase by $1 million to $83.5 million this summer.
“Based on current projections, there will still be an escrow account at the end of the season, and if that’s the case, we will increase the cap by $1 million,” Bettman said. “The budget projections that we have now are pretty robust – we’re expecting a very good season – but if we do even better, up to $140, $150 million, it’s conceivable that the escrow falls away and then the Caps go to the mid-range of $86 (millions) plus. we have to see We’ll just watch it. It seems quite clear that if we don’t pay off the escrow this year, after next year it should all be gone and there shouldn’t be a problem with that.”
The third option would be to negotiate with the NHLPA over the next few years to “smooth out” the cap escalation. The league has not yet been approached by the NHLPA (which is discussing it internally with players for now, according to sources on the matter but not authorized to speak publicly).
“We’re not discussing that right now,” Bettman said. “It is what it is. Of course, if it is to be changed, it would have to be discussed with the players’ association.”
From what I’m hearing, I’d be surprised if the NHLPA didn’t approach the league about it at some point.
The other factor that could potentially negatively impact earnings is a lower Canadian dollar. The seven Canadian clubs have a huge impact on HRR, so a lower Canadian dollar is not ideal.
“We took that into account,” Bettman said. “That was a minor, very minor factor that deviated from our original guidance, maybe in the $10 to $15 million range. We ended last year at about $5.4 billion, more or less — I’ll round — which is about half a billion more than we forecast. That’s one of the reasons we’re having this discussion in the first place. We expect another good year of increases in HRR. But when we said that, there was about a billion and a half to pay. We collectively – that is us and the players – have done quite well that things have come back as strongly as they have where it is crystal clear that this will certainly pay off in the not too distant future.”
Current revenue projections put players’ debt to owners down about $70 million by the end of the season.
Bettman announced Tuesday that at least 12 property owners were interested in selling the Senators.
“There are more than a dozen parties that I believe have signed non-disclosure agreements and have expressed an interest in the process,” Bettman said. “The process I believe will require the data room to be open, which should be fairly soon, and they will likely start a more structured process after the first of the year.”
Could Canadian Hollywood actor Ryan Reynolds be embroiled in a new Senators ownership community, regardless of which party ends up with the team? That seems to be the hope of the NHL. Bettman said he and Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly met with Reynolds.
“Bill and I met with Ryan Reynolds, who really impressed us,” Bettman said. “If we could find a way to include him, I think that would be great for the senators and I think that would be great for the league.”
What stood out about Reynolds:
“He’s very smart. He has a variety of businesses outside of acting, and he understands sports and he understands advertising. I believe he told us that his followers across all his platforms combined are well over 100 million. He is someone who is very popular and very dedicated.”
As for a timeline for the sales process, it’s not 100 percent clear yet.
“In terms of who wants to be part of the process, (it) is something that’s still ongoing and I don’t think a more formal process will start until the holidays are over and people are back and focused,” he said Bettman.
Interesting little nugget at the very end of Daly’s media availability. I requested an update on the league’s desire to centrally register no-trade lists in player contracts across the league following the cancellation of the Vegas-Anaheim trade involving Evgenii Dadonov last season.
The league announced in March that it would work with the NHLPA to establish a clearinghouse for the no-trade lists.
“We have already had discussions with the players’ association to create a requirement for all no-trade documents to be submitted to the central registry and the players’ association at the same time,” Daly said at the time.
But after months of back-and-forth between the league and the NHLPA, there doesn’t seem to be a common clearinghouse after all. Daly said on Tuesday it looks like the league will go on on its own and from next season clubs will share no-trade list information with the central registry.
(Photo by Gary Bettman: Matthew Stockman / Getty Images)