Way back in the early days of this maddening NHL lockout, a long-serving league source reminded me not to read too much into the inevitable ups and downs of the negotiating process. "It always looks like nothing's happening until it does," he said.
Well, maybe something just did.
Though NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly released a statement in which he refused to discuss any details, he league acknowledged that quietly made an offer to the NHLPA on Thursday that could move the stalled talks into high gear and
? One compliance buyout of one player contract per club that would not count against the cap but would count against the players' overall revenue share.
? The length of contracts would be a maximum of six years (up from five in the previous proposal) for newly signed players, but teams could re-sign their own for up to seven years.
? A 10 percent salary variance on contracts from year to year (up from five percent in the last proposal).
? The salary cap would remain $60 million (which likely will be a sticking point for the players) and the proposed make-whole figure for honoring existing contracts would remain at $300 million.
On the surface, it sure looks like the league is giving up some ground that was considered sacred. Is that enough to get the game back on the ice? Honestly, no one can tell. At this point, it's impossible to say what will or won't move the needle for the players, especially given the NHLPA's history of moving the goal line through the course of these negotiations. Now that the players see the NHL is in a giving mood, and with time running out to get a a 48-game 2013 season underway, they may decide this is the moment to dig in until they can claw back some more goodies from the league's clutches. Given all that's taken place to this point, it wouldn't surprise me at all if that's the way Don Fehr decides to play it.
But for the glass half-full-types, the fact that the league presented the offer without ongoing talks, and that it did so without any public fanfare, suggests at the least a belief this is a proposal that should appeal to the players. The PA scheduled a conference call with its membership for 3 PM on Friday (Dec.28) to discuss the details. At that point, we'll know if there will be joint talks in the near future, or if this was just more smoke without any fire.
If the offer does provide some traction, the kind that can generate some serious give-and-take in face-to-face meetings, we could see action in a matter of weeks.
A team source, who earlier this month revealed that his team was gearing up for a mid-January resumption, said that a season start date of Jan. 19 -- a Saturday -- was being targeted. With at least a week to 10 days needed for training camps, that would require a deal being consummated by Jan. 10 or so.
Sounds promising, but we've gotten our hopes up too many times in the past only to have them dashed. Before we start pulling our team sweaters out of mothballs and calling for tickets, it's best to wait and see how this plays out.
Jamming The Crease
? I can't even begin to figure out what's wrong with Nail Yakupov. The first overall pick in last summer's draft earned some props when he dropped to block a shot in the final minute of Russia's 2-1 win over Team USA on Friday, but there's not a lot of vigor in his offensive game. There have been flashes, but still too much of the indifference that marked his play during the Subway Super Series in November. Hardly panic time for Edmonton Oilers fans, but with these games being played in Russia, you'd expect a little more passion from the kid.
? Panthers' prospect Rocco Grimaldi of Team USA is trying to do too much out there, and it's hurting the team. He's shown a lot of the skill that convinced scouts to overlook his 5'-6" stature, but his decision making with the puck has been a problem. Until he figures out how and when to use his teammates, he's too easy to neutralize.
? His team was thumped in consecutive games by Canada and the US, but Germany's Leon Draisaitl has won me over. The second overall pick in last summer's CHL Import Draft has played well on the top line for the Prince Albert Raiders, but he's really stood out in Ufa. He has good size (6-1, 200) and elite hockey sense, but it's his speed that really catches your eye. He's not eligible for the NHL draft until 2014, but he's definitely one to watch.
? The likelihood of Boston Bruins draft pick Alexander Khokhlachev returning from the KHL to the OHL's Windsor Spitfires after the tournament went up significantly after his father, Igor, was fired as the GM of Spartak. Given how lightly Khokhlachev has been used in Russia, the chance to play heavy minutes in Windsor makes the most sense for his development.
? That Russia-US game on Friday was outstanding, but it could just be a preview of coming attractions for each team's shot at Canada. On Sunday, it'll be Canada's big forwards matching up against the superior goaltending and mobile defense of the Americans. Anaheim Ducks prospect John Gibson could be the difference-maker for the U.S. On Monday, the Canadians take on the Russians less than a week after Yakupov ignited controversy by calling them "dirty." It should be a fast-paced, emotional and very chippy match.
? If I'm Team Canada coach Steve Spott, I use Jordan Binnington in net against the US even though Bruins first-rounder Malcolm Subban hasn't been bad. If anything, Subban has been hung out to dry by his defense on four of the six goals he's allowed -- but he hasn't felt like the guy who can carry the mail. It makes sense to give Binnington, a St. Louis Blues prospect, a shot against a top-end rival like the Americans to see if he has what it takes. If not, you can always come back with Subban for the next match.
? Canada's two 17-year-old forwards, Jonathan Drouin and Nathan MacKinnon, haven't made much of a case to this point for the use of underagers in future tournaments, but there's a good chance the team will consider employing a 16-year-old next year in Malmo, Sweden. It looks like there could be a dearth of high-end offensive talent, which could open the door for Erie center Connor McDavid.
The World Juniors is getting all the coverage, but scouts will be at the World Under-17 Challenge that gets underway Saturday, Dec. 29 in the co-host cities of Victoriaville and Drummondville, Quebec. The event features five regional Canadian teams -- Atlantic, Quebec, Ontario, West and Pacific -- along with teams representing Russia, Sweden, Slovakia, Finland and the USA in a two-division, round-robin format.
The Russians, led by 2013 draft prospect Valeri Nichushkin, captured their first gold at the event last year and are in good position to repeat, but the teams to beat could be Team USA and Team Ontario.
The U.S. side features -- like they all seem to these days -- a trio of American-born sons of Canadian NHLers. Ryan MacInnis and Joshua Wesley will play key roles on the blueline while Dominic Turgeon will be counted on to spark the offense. The Americans finished second in each of the last two tournaments after winning gold in 2010 and should contend again.
A pair of players who were given early admission to the OHL under the exceptional loophole will lead Ontario. Connor McDavid, who is making a huge impact in the O as a 15-year-old, will spearhead the offense while rawboned defender Aaron Ekblad will be the go-to guy on the back end.
Team Pacific, which is built from the top players in Alberta and British Columbia, should also draw some attention. Jake Virtanen, the WHL's first overall pick in 2011, is a promising power forward who is draft eligible in 2014. Payton Lee, who was playing Junior B hockey last month before seizing the starting job with the Vancouver Giants, will man the nets. Left winger Brayden Point is undersized, but always seems to put himself in the right places to score.
You can catch tournament action online at
In closing, a reminder to fans of North America's true No. 1 sport -- ref baiting -- I'd like to take a moment to recognize how good we really have it over here. In his press conference following Team Canada's nail-biting 6-3 win over Slovakia at the World Juniors on Friday, coach Steve Spott did exactly that. "I think I've got a full appreciation for how good the officiating is in the Canadian Hockey League right now," he said after a contest that saw a pair of his forwards ejected for head contact among a slew of questionable penalties.
Even before being introduced to the comically inept (and possibly corrupt) duo of Josef Kampalla and Franz Baader back in 1972, Canadian and American teams playing overseas have been challenged to adjust to the whims of European officiating. Standards there don't just fluctuate from official to official, but from shift to shift. Unless your team draws one of the few who truly belong out there, you never really know what you'll get.
No doubt you'll see the occasional bad (or missed) call here, but really, from Pee Wee hockey on up, our very well-trained officials are exemplars of Solomonic wisdom by comparison. They do a better job than they'll ever get credit for.