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Knuble says NHL waiting to make its best offer

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Knuble says NHL waiting to make its best offer

On Tuesday night NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly made it clear where the negotiations between the league and its players stood when he told Chris Botta of the Sports Business Journal, “We’re done making proposals. We’ll see what they want to do.”

Former Capitals veteran Mike Knuble isn’t buying it. And he’s pretty sure NHLPA executive director Don Fehr and his special counsel and brother Steve Fehr aren’t going to be bullied into crafting a new proposal.

“It’s not a ping-pong game,” Knuble told CSNWashington.com. “We’re not going to make an offer because someone said it’s our turn.

“I’m sure Don and Steve will have their internal meetings and figure out which direction they want to go, but they’re not bowing to any sort of pressure from Bill or Gary [Bettman]. They’re not going to make a move that will hurt us just for the sake of making one.”

Knuble believes the NHL has a date circled on its negotiating calendar – a date in which a shortened regular season can be salvaged – and when it arrives another offer will be presented.

“I think sometime in December,” he said. “I just think that when the NHL wants to be serious about talking we’ll get a deal done. But I don’t think they’re at that point yet.

“I believe they still feel their time line isn’t there yet. When it will be I think we’ll all know it and I think things will happen pretty quickly when they get to their time line.”

Knuble, 40, said he believes today’s NHL players are just as adamant about getting a fair deal as they were in 2004-05 when an entire season was lost. In addition to forfeiting a year of income in that lockout players accepted a 24 percent rollback on their 2005-06 salaries.

“It’s like tearing off a Band-Aid,” Knuble said. “It was a slap in the face taking 24 percent right off the top of everybody’s salary. I think a lot of players who were involved in '04 vowed that would never happen again. We would never go through that again.”

Today, the players’ rallying cry is protecting the contracts they thought were signed in good faith. Over the summer dozens of high-profile players signed lucrative deals, none more lucrative than Sidney Crosby’s 12-year, $104.4 million extension with the Penguins and the 13-year, $98 million free-agent contracts signed by Minnesota’s Zach Parise and Ryan Suter.

“Were those contracts signed in good faith or were they signed with the idea they were getting a discount?” Knuble said. “I don’t know. I think that’s why players are frustrated.

“All our All-Stars are signed to multi-year deals and those high-profile guys aren’t going to take that lightly, to be stripped like that again. It happened once, but it’s not going to happen again and guys are pretty adamant about that. Guys know it’s going to go to 50-50, but how do you want to get there?”

In an attempt to get to a 50-50 split in revenues, the NHL has proposed a “make whole” provision in which $211 million in player salaries would be paid in deferred payments over two years.

The players want their current contracts paid in full and not in deferred payments.

Knuble said he believes the NHL is weeks away from its best offer and is following a path similar to the one taken by the NBA last season, when the league and union settled on Thanksgiving and began a 66-game season on Christmas day.

“Everybody remembers LeBron James and the Miami Heat won,” Knuble said. “That’s all they remember about last year and I think the NHL would love to see that.”

Knuble said he thinks a shortened season would need to consist of at least 55 games to legitimize the grind of the Stanley Cup playoffs. He also believes some small-market teams are perfectly content losing the first two months of the regular season, which are traditionally the slowest and least attended of the NHL season.

He also believes there will be hockey this winter.

“I do, just because I’m optimistic,” he said. “When we lost the [2004-05] season we all never thought that would happen. We didn’t think that was in the realm of possibility, but they showed it is.

“Every day that goes by I guess the window closes a little bit, but I don’t think we’re at crunch time yet. I think that’s another month away.”

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Why the Caps had to trade Matt Niskanen

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Why the Caps had to trade Matt Niskanen

In an ideal world, you keep players like Matt Niskanen.

A veteran defenseman with years of experience, a player who was given hard minutes during Stanley Cup playoff runs in 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018 and excelled, a soft-spoken, but blunt man unafraid to say when his team played like hot garbage. These are not guys you look to trade. 

Unless, of course, they have a $5.75 million salary-cap hit for the next two years and your team desperately needs to clear space for other priorities. The Capitals made that long-expected move on Friday when they traded Niskanen to the Philadelphia Flyers for defenseman Radko Gudas. 

In a vacuum, this is a loss. Niskanen by all accounts has been a better defenseman than Gudas. But they are also on different career trajectories. Niskanen struggled, especially early last season. He is 32. There’s at least a chance we’ve seen the best of him, though he’d argue by the end of last season he was closer to his normal self.

“Not totally shocked, but it caught me a little off guard,” Niskanen told reporters on a conference call Friday. “I knew once the NHL season was over, from now until the draft is typically when things happen.  Not really shocked, a little surprised. I knew this is the time of year when these things can happen and I knew what kind of situation Washington was in, so I knew there was a possibility.

Gudas, 29, is going in the opposite direction – though his ceiling is surely lower than Niskanen’s is at his best. He’s cut down his penalty minutes each of the past three years. He’s of limited offensive value, instead a classic stay-at-home defenseman who’s become effective at limiting the high-danger chances when he’s on the ice. 

And that role won’t have to be a big one. The Capitals have an in-house replacement for Niskanen on the right side of the second pair with Nick Jensen, who is really the on-ice key to this trade. 

Jensen, acquired at the trade deadline from Detroit, was immediately signed to a four-year contract extension sight unseen. The writing was on the wall for Niskanen then. Caps GM Brian MacLellan basically said it out loud at breakdown down when he acknowledged retaining scoring depth is a priority and that he likely would have to move salary. These dots weren’t difficult to connect. 

Gudas is the plug-in defenseman on the third pair who allows Washington’s coaching staff to pick and choose which young player – Jonas Siegenthaler, Christian Djoos or whoever – they want to use on a given night. Both players are natural left-side defensemen.

If Jensen can find the comfort level he’d reached with the Red Wings, then MacLellan will have a more balanced roster. Immediately he can focus his leftover resources on the third and fourth lines. Maybe that means re-signing Carl Hagelin. Early indications are that’s a priority. 

But with about $13.49 million in cap space, according to the uber-helpful web site Cap Friendly.com. there is a little breathing room now to take care of restricted free agents (RFAs) Jakub Vrana – expect him around the $4 million mark on a bridge deal – and maybe Andre Burakovsky (a $3.25 million qualifying offer or less than that if they buy out his final two years of restricted free agency). 

But now let’s look at the long-term implications of the Niskanen trade. Gudas is a free agent after next season. That Niskanen money is gone just in time for contract extensions with center Nicklas Backstrom and goalie Braden Holtby.  

The Capitals will lose the bonus overage ($1.150 million) they have to pay defenseman Brooks Orpik this year - whether he plays with the team or not (a return seems unlikely now). Gudas’ cap hit is $2.345 million. The salary cap should also rise again from $83 million. Without moving more salary, keeping both Holtby and Backstrom seems like a long shot. 

Speaking with Holtby on Saturday at the Capital Pride Parade, he insisted to NBC Sports Washington that he hadn’t heard anything from his agent about contract talks beginning. That’s something you’d expect to happen this summer - or not at all if Holtby rightly pursues a top-level goalie contract. 

Montreal goalie Carey Price has a $10.5 million cap hit, New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist is at $8.5 million and Columbus goalie Sergei Bobrovsky could hit double figures as he enters the free agent market this summer. 

Backstrom, too, a bargain for nine years now, will want a raise. He now has the 20thhighest cap hit for a center ($6.7 million). You’d have to think he’d seek well over $8 million. Teammate Evgeny Kuznetsov has had a $7.8 million cap hit since 2017.

Niskanen knew all of this, of course. He understands the business side of the sport. A player with his own moral code, who was always, always at his locker when he made a mistake in a game or when someone had to account for a poor team performance, leaves Washington after five years with a Stanley Cup and few regrets. It’s what he came here to do.  

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The Niskanen trade helps the Caps’ salary cap situation, but tough decisions are still ahead

The Niskanen trade helps the Caps’ salary cap situation, but tough decisions are still ahead

The 2019 offseason for the Capitals was always going to revolve around the salary cap. The first domino fell on Friday with the trade of defenseman Matt Niskanen and his $5.75 million cap hit to the Philadelphia Flyers.

The Caps received defenseman Radko Gudas in return with the Flyers retaining 30-percent of his $3.35 million cap hit. In total, Washington freed up $3.405 million worth of cap space for next season.

But that was just step one. There is still a lot of work left for general manager Brian MacLellan to do over the summer to fill out a full roster. Just how much easier did his life get on Friday?

With the move, the Caps now have eight forwards, six defensemen and two goalies under contract for next season for about $69.5 million. Ideally, a team wants 22 players with 13 forwards, seven defensemen and two goalies. The salary cap has not yet been officially set, but it is projected to be $83 million. That means the team still needs five forwards and one defenseman and has about $13.5 million worth of cap space to work with.

Jakub Vrana and Christian Djoos are both restricted free agents and both will almost certainly be back. That is one forward and one defenseman off the wish list. Vrana will probably come in at about $4 million per year and Djoos at $1 million, giving the team about $8.5 million left for four forwards.

The good news is that the team is pretty much set in the top-six which of course means MacLellan will not need to find a big money player. The Niskanen trade allows the team room for a significant depth forward somewhere in the $4 million range for the third line with enough left over to fill out the remaining depth spots. The bad news is that still leaves the team with some tough choices to make.

Carl Hagelin and Brett Connolly are both unrestricted free agents and the team may have enough money for one, but not both. There is also still the question of what to do with Andre Burakovsky. Do you qualify him for $3.25 million? That may not be as tough a pill to swallow at this point, but it is still a significant amount of money to commit to a player with 12 goals in each of the past two seasons. And then there are the team’s other RFAs Chandler Stephenson and Dmitrij Jaskin. MacLellan will have to make a decision on all of those players while still putting together a team with enough depth to compete for the Stanley Cup before the window closes on the Ovechkin era completely.

The Caps lost a good player and locker room presence in Niskanen and now have more cap flexibility as a result, but it does not solve all of the team’s salary cap problems. The team will not be able to add as much offensive depth as perhaps it would have liked and MacLellan will still have to get creative to put together a bottom six formidable enough for a deep Cup run.

 

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