PALM BEACH, Fla. — In a board of governors meeting that produced so little news, perhaps the most intriguing thing I learned was an item that was not discussed formally.
At least, it was to me.
I did an informal poll of governors over two and a half days. The question was simple: Do you favor the idea of a play-in before the Stanley Cup playoffs?
I asked 12 governors. It was 12-0 in favor of the NHL adding a play-in round. I couldn’t find a single voice of dissent.
Now, I’m sure if I were able to canvass governors from all 32 teams, I would find a few in opposition. But still: 12 governors, 12 people who like the idea of a play-in.
None of the governors wanted to talk on the record about it because they knew they would suffer the wrath of commissioner Gary Bettman if they did.
Because Bettman remains steadfastly against the idea. He has been very consistent with that over the past few years. To which, well, I put the question to Bettman yet again Tuesday after the two-day board of governors meeting wrapped up:
What about the idea of expanding the playoffs with a play-in like the NBA has done?
“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,” insisted Bettman. “People think the system we have in place right now is working extraordinarily well, and frankly there’s nothing better in sports playoffs than our first round. And so, I’m not sensing much of an appetite for change.”
Maybe it is true that owners and team executives aren’t in his ear yet on this. It certainly wasn’t the time to do it during the pandemic. There were other priorities.
But the more I hear from some of these clubs, the more I get the sense the moment is coming over the next few years when a push will happen for a play-in. And the tipping point could be if US TV partners ESPN and TNT decide they want to get behind the idea and put pressure on Bettman to consider it.
I asked Bettman on Tuesday why he doesn’t like the idea.
“You’re looking to fix a problem that doesn’t exist,” Bettman said.
Another reporter asked about potential extra revenues that could be derived.
“I’m not sure it enhances revenues,” 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 being voted in as NHL commissioner at the board of governors meeting at this very hotel.
At the time, 16 of 24 teams made the playoffs. Before that, it was 16 of 21. Which was silly of course. Way too easy. But now it’s 16 of 32.
It is absolutely the right timing to discuss the merits of a play-in. The most talked-about concept would see No. 7 vs. No. 10 and no. 8 vs. No. 9 in each conference in best-of-three series, held quickly over three days max. No travel; the higher seed gets to host the entire series. That’s what some people would like to see.
It would have more teams playing relevant games in March, no question about it.
And this concept still protects the traditional 16-team playoff field. It’s a play-in to get into the 16.
But for any of this to see the light of day, owners will need to start backchanneling with the commissioner. And I would suggest it needs to happen at the executive committee level. That’s the smaller group of owners who have the commissioner’s ear.
Bettman was asked about the ongoing league investigation into the 2018 Canadian world junior team, which seems to be nearing its end.
“We still have some work to do,” Bettman said. “We understand that two other investigations are still going on. We have some more work to do in terms of coordinating, particularly with the Players’ Association, but I think we’re certainly in the home stretch.”
What seems evident is that the NHL doesn’t want to interfere in any way with the police investigation still ongoing in London, Ontario, which is to say I think the league is sensitive to the fact that announcing the findings of its investigation before London police are done with their criminal investigation could be an issue.
Bettman was specifically asked if the league would announce its findings before London police.
“That would be up to the London police. If they asked us not to make things public, we wouldn’t,” Bettman said.
Since 2005, the tradition has been that the league gives governors a sneak peek/projection for next season’s salary cap at this meeting.
To that end, it would appear that despite some hope back at the October meeting that the cap could jump by more than $4 million if a certain revenue threshold was met this season, HRR will fall short of that, the players won’t quite be done paying off the escrow from the pandemic, and therefore we’re looking likely at just a $1 million bump in the cap this summer, to $83.5 million.
“Based on current projections, there will still be an escrow at the end of the season, and if that’s the case we will move the cap up by $1 million,” Bettman said. “The budgeting projections that we have now are pretty robust — we’re anticipating having a very good season — but if we do even better, by ballpark an additional $140, $150 million, it’s conceivable the escrow will go away and then the cap will go up to in the midrange $86 (million) plus. We’ll have to see. We’re just going to watch it. Clearly, it appears that if we don’t finish paying off the escrow this year, after next year it should be all gone and there shouldn’t be any issue about that.”
The third option would be to negotiate a “smoothing” of the cap escalation over the next few years with the NHLPA. The league has not yet been approached by the NHLPA (which is discussing it with players internally for now, according to sources briefed on the matter but not authorized to speak about it publicly).
“That’s not something that we’re discussing right now,” Bettman said. “It is what it is. If it’s to be changed, that’s something that obviously would have to be discussed with the Players’ Association.”
Based on what I’m hearing, I would be surprised if the NHLPA doesn’t approach the league at some point about it.
The other factor that could potentially impact revenues negatively is a lower Canadian dollar. The seven Canadian clubs have a huge impact on HRR, so a lower Canadian dollar is not ideal.
“We factored that in,” Bettman said. “That was marginally, very marginally, a factor off of our initial projections, maybe in the $10 to 15 million range. Last year, we finished at about $5.4 billion, give or take — I’m rounding — which is about half a billion more than we had projected going in. It’s one of the reasons we’re even having this discussion. We’re expecting another good year of increases in HRR. But when we stated this, there was about a billion and a half to pay off. We collectively — meaning us and the players — have done quite well by having things come back as strong as they have where it’s crystal clear that, certainly, this is going to be paid off in the not too distant future.”
The current revenue projections see the players’ debt to owners falling about $70 million short by the end of the season.
Bettman revealed Tuesday that there were at least 12 ownership parties interested in the sale of the Senators.
“There are more than a dozen parties that have I believe signed an NDA and expressed an interest in the process,” Bettman said. “The process I believe requires the data room to be open, which should be done quite soon, and they’ll probably begin a more structured process after the first of the year.”
Could Canadian Hollywood actor Ryan Reynolds be involved in a new Senators ownership group, regardless of which party ends up with the team? That seems to be what the NHL is hoping for. Bettman said he and deputy commissioner Bill Daly met with Reynolds.
“Bill and I met with Ryan Reynolds, who very much impressed us,” Bettman said. “If we can figure out a way to have him included, I think that would be great for the Senators and I think that would be great for the league.”
On what stood out about Reynolds:
“He’s very smart. He has a number of businesses besides the acting business, and he understands sports, and he understands promotion. I think he told us his followers on all of his platforms combined are well over 100 million. He’s somebody who is very popular and very engaged.”
As for a timeline for the sale process, that’s still not 100 percent clear.
“In terms of soliciting who wants to be in the process, (it’s) something that is ongoing and I think a more formal process won’t begin until after the holidays are over and people are back and focused,” Bettman said.
Interesting little nugget at the very end of Daly’s media availability. I asked for an update on the league’s desire to centrally register no-trade lists in player contracts around the league in the wake of last season’s rescinded Vegas–Anaheim trade involving Evgenii Dadonov.
The league announced in March that it would work with the NHLPA to build a clearing house for the no-trade lists.
“We’ve already had discussions with the Players’ Association about creating a requirement that all no-trade documentation gets filed simultaneously with the central registry and the Players’ Association,” Daly said at the time.
But after months of back and forth between the league and the NHLPA, it appears there won’t be a joint clearing house after all. Daly said Tuesday that it looks like the league will go ahead on its own, and starting next season clubs will share the no-trade list information with central registry.
(Photo of Gary Bettman: Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)