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NHL labor negotiations reach a critical point

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NHL labor negotiations reach a critical point

Things better start getting serious in the NHL labor negotiations, and quickly, or the entire regular season will be in jeopardy.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly will meet today in Toronto at the NHLPA offices with Donald and Steve Fehr, the directors of the union, and the expectation is that both sides are prepared to discuss the core economic issues at the heart of their significant disagreement.

Thats a change from what's transpired since the lockout began. What talks have been held have focused on issues like ice-surface conditions, player safety, and the high cost of additional training staff for each of the 30 NHL clubs. In other words, the two sides have been avoiding the 500-pound gorilla in the room thats been jumping up and down for months.

At least one side, and perhaps both, are ready to bring new offers to the table and finally start actual negotiations on the issue that spurred the lockout. It may end the mother of all staring contests, which has wiped out the entire preseason and the first two weeks of the regular-season schedule.

This week represents the last-ditch effort to find common ground before things really get bad, and we find out what kind of kamikaze mission the NHL is on after missing the 2004-05 season to labor issues.

The expectation is that the league will cancel up to a month of games if things dont radically improve during this next round of discussions. That would wipe out two paycheck periods up to Nov. 22 (though it would leave the nationally televised Black Friday game between the Bruins and Rangers on Nov. 23 untouched for the time being).

If that happens, the players will have lost roughly 20 percent of their salaries for 2012-13. That may harden positions on the NHLPA side, since the players felt all along that the owners -- feeling there'd be a work stoppage that would result in a new collective bargaining agreement with player givebacks -- signed a slew of contracts for more than a billion dollars this summer without any intention of paying the full freight.

Still, losing 20 percent of salary is certainly more palatable than losing 100 percent if the entire season is cancelled and, according to sources with knowledge on both sides, the feeling is that if the dispute drags on into November, the NHL will cancel the entire season.

At some point logic has to factor in, since the players dont have many other options. The salaries in Europe that many are collecting as they play there during the lockout are small to begin with, and most of it is eaten up by the high cost of insurance to protect them in case of injury. The only league close to approaching the NHL in pay scale is the KHL, but its long plane trips and less-than-ideal setting don't make it an attractive destination.

(There have even been reports of NHL players unable to get their own equipment delivered to them in the KHL because their suppliers have been harassed by Eastern European companies. That kind of thing will get old very quickly for players like Zdeno Chara and Henrik Zetterberg, who are used to the first-class, five-star experience guaranteed everywhere they go in the NHL.)

What's especially worrisome is that the NHL is now focused at least partially on winning the public-relations battle. It has gone so far as to hire the same consulting firm used by the Republican Party to turn the PR tide against the players.

Whats escaping the NHL and to a lesser degree the NHLPA is that the ticket-purchasing public doesnt care which side is right. Theres a limit to Joe Six Packs empathy for millionaire players and billionaire owners when the NHL isnt playing games, and its being reached.

Those intimate with the NHLPA line of thinking freely admit that a deal that slowly staggers their percentage of Hockey Related Revenue down from its current 57 percent figure would work. The players know its eventually going to be a 5050 proposition, and a seven-year deal that goes something like 53-52-51-50-50-50-50 for the players would be approved with very little fight from the NHLPAs side.

So far the NHL hasn't budged from its demand for a drastic drop, right off the bat, that would cut the players share by 10-20 percent immediately.

That represents 300-700 million in very real money cuts for players in a league thats broken revenue records in each of the last five seasons. It's a giant slice of the pie, and the players wont give it up all at once.

It shouldnt take a PR consulting firm to come up with a clever marketing campaign for the NHL during the lockout. Its very simple:

Seek a fair compromise rather than wield a sledgehammer of greed. End the lockout. Protect the season, the Winter Classic, the HBO 247 series and Stanley Cup playoffs.

The fans dont care which side is right. They just want their NHL back, and they want it back now.

The sooner the NHL grasps that simple truth, the better it will be for everybody involved.

Heinen beginning to look like a keeper for Bruins

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Heinen beginning to look like a keeper for Bruins

BRIGHTON, Mass – While it’s still early in the careers of all the young Bruins rookies making their way this season, it sure looks like 22-year-old Danton Heinen is among the B’s youngsters that are here to stay. The former University of Denver standout didn’t make the cut at the end of training camp this season and he failed early last year when it was clear he wasn’t ready during an eight-game audition with the big club.

But Heinen continued to look ready while scoring a pair of goals and three points in the three games on a pivotal road trip through California last week, and is now tied for fifth on the Bruins in points despite missing four games in the AHL. In all, Heinen has four goals and 10 points along with a plus-4 rating in 15 games this season, and is on pace for a really strong 21 goals and 52 points in his first full year.

This has been a really nice step forward for Heinen after being a point-per-game player for Providence during their playoff run last spring.

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“Last year’s playoff did a lot for him. When I saw him playing there, he was a different player than when he’d left [Boston],” said Bruce Cassidy. “There was a willingness to stay in the battle and his growth when it comes to winning pucks…you’ve seen it here. A lot of the things he’s down well are his second and third efforts on the puck where last year I thought he was pushed off the puck pretty easily [at the NHL level].”

There could be a period when his offense slows down or some other part of his game drags his minutes down, but right now he looks like he’s well on his way to establishing himself in a key role with the Black and Gold. The difference has been Heinen increasing his speed and also adding a little more tenacity to the skill and offense package that he was always bringing to the table.  

“I don’t want to say that because when we get our guys healthy then we’ll see where we’re at,” said Bruce Cassidy, when asked if Heinen was a keeper at the NHL level at this point. “But I think he’s certainly shown he’s a much more consistent player than he was last year. He’s probably a bit ahead of the other younger guys because he has gone through a bit of it [at the pro level]. The fact that he’s been able to play in a lot of different situations, play left or right wing, and moved up in the lineup while being very effective with [Sean] Kuraly and [Tim] Schaller down in the lineup, as a coach it’s to have a guy like that who can move around and fit in a lot of different places.

“So he’s certainly helped himself [to stay in the NHL]. I think it’s too early to say if he’s here for good, but I don’t envision him leaving [Boston] anytime soon with the way that he’s played.”

Only time and consistently good play will allow the playmaking Heinen to truly lock up his spot on the NHL roster, but it’s increasingly difficult to envision any scenario where the fifth-round pick isn’t playing an increasingly important role for the Bruins. 

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Bruins' Backes returns to ice after surgery for diverticulitis

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Bruins' Backes returns to ice after surgery for diverticulitis

BRIGHTON -- In a development that was certainly much sooner than originally anticipated, David Backes has returned to the ice just a matter of weeks after having 10 inches of colon removed during surgery for diverticulitis. It remains to be seen how gradual a process it will be for the 33-year-old to actually return to game action given his original timetable for recovery was eight weeks following the early November procedure, but it seems like it might end up being ahead of the two months Backes was initially expected to be sidelined. 

For his part, Backes was happy to be back skating with his teammates and pushing his recovering body after feeling pretty sluggish for the first few days following surgery. He confirmed he’d been skating for a couple of days while the team was on the West Coast, but Monday was his first team doing anything post-surgery with the rest of the team. 

“It’s good to be back with the guys and to be around the room, and to have seen the kind of resiliency that these guys showed on the road trip. The back half of the road trip was impressive,” said Backes, who has an assist in five games with the Bruins before succumbing to the surgery. “To be on the ice and moving around after sitting around doing nothing for too long where you don’t think you’re going to see the light at the end of the tunnel, it feels good. 

“The doc’s advice is that if it doesn’t hurt then I can keep moving forward and add more of a workload on, so that’s the update for today. It’s still non-contact, but we’ll keep moving along and hopefully I’ll be back doing what I love to do on a regular basis. I haven’t been notified that the timeline has changed at all, so I’m just going to keep putting in the work. The more I seem to do the work the better it is, and I seem to be able to do a little more each day. So those are all positive signs.”

For the Bruins it’s clearly a morale booster to see the big power forward back doing regular hockey activities, and serving notice that he’ll be bringing his size, strength, leadership and physicality back to a B’s team that definitely needs him. Clearly the return of another high-end forward would also immensely help a Bruins team that’s still very undermanned up front, but it would appear there will be some other B’s forwards getting back prior to Backes. 

Brad Marchand and Ryan Spooner appear poised to return to full practice on Tuesday with a possible return to the lineup not too far beyond that after all three injured forwards took part in Monday’s optional skate at Warrior Ice Arena. 

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