Couture: 'Every game is going to be so big'
After nearly four months of agony, a new NHL collective bargaining agreement is finally in place. Hockey fans can now start talking about rosters, depth charts and their favorite team’s chances at a Stanley Cup rather than salary variances, disclaimers of interest and “make whole” provisions.
What happens now? Here are some thoughts and predictions on several common questions that have popped up since the league and players’ association ended their silly little labor war less than 24 hours ago in New York.
1) When will the schedule be revealed, and how long will it be?
The CBA still has to be officially ratified by the league’s Board of Governors and the players. Until that happens, the league won’t officially reveal anything. That could take a few days.
Still, several reports surfaced that the NHL had schedule contingencies for a 50-game season and a 48-game season. Most prognosticators feel that there is time for a 50-game schedule beginning between Jan. 17th – 19th. In 1995, a 48-game season began on Jan. 20 after an agreement on Jan. 11, so they are a bit ahead of schedule this time around when you compare the two.
If a 50-game schedule happens, expect the Sharks to face their division rivals five times apiece, as well as three games each against the other conference foes. There will almost certainly be no games against Eastern Conference clubs.
[RATTO: Labor peace, but no victories]
The Sharks may have to spend their first few games on the road, too, as the HP Pavilion is hosting a Lady Gaga concert on Jan. 17; the Harlem Globetrotters on Jan. 20; and WWE Monday Night Raw on Jan. 21. A Sharks visit to Dallas on Jan. 19, which was on the original schedule, could conceivably be the team's first game.
2) When will training camp begin and who will be there?
Again, no training camp dates will be revealed until both parties officially ratify the CBA. Logic dictates that camps will open at some point this week, though, perhaps as soon as Wednesday.
As for who will attend camp, along with the current cast of characters whose roster spots are assured, I would expect the Sharks to bring in at least a couple players from their AHL affiliate in Worcester. James Sheppard has been steadily improving after two years off due to injury, and he’ll get a shot at cracking the opening night roster, maybe even as the third line center. John McCarthy, a familiar name to Sharks fans and who is currently Worcester’s captain, would also probably be in camp. Worcester leading scorer Tim Kennedy would have been another option, but he recently suffered an undisclosed injury and is out for at least the immediate future.
On defense, Worcester has a number of injured players, but fortunately the two most NHL-ready blueliners are healthy. My guess is Matt Irwin and Matt Tennyson will make the cross-country flight, and it wouldn’t be shocking to see one of those two on the ice for opening night, as a couple notable Sharks players may be unavailable.
Speaking of which…
3) How are Brent Burns, Jason Demers and Justin Braun?
Jason Demers probably won’t be ready on opening night after breaking his wrist in Finland. Originally, it was reported on Jan. 1 that he would be out for three weeks, before his agent told me that it would be more like 4-to-6 weeks. According to a Sharks source, however, Demers’ injury isn’t that serious, and might be more of a fracture than a break.
Burns is a little more difficult to predict, and there are some real questions surrounding his situation. He had offseason surgery to repair a sports hernia and groin injury in late May and was medically cleared on Oct. 9, but has only recently started skating lightly. He wouldn’t say on Friday if he would be ready for a potential opener on Jan. 19, which suggests he could miss some time.
Braun should be fine, as his agent told me that the defenseman “should be ready” after suffering a hand injury in Finland in December.
4) How does the new salary cap affect the Sharks?
For the upcoming shortened season, it doesn’t. Teams are still allowed to operate under the previous salary cap of $70.2 million, which will obviously be pro-rated depending on how many games are played. It’s the 2013-14 salary cap of $64.3 million that might adversely affect San Jose.
Right now, the Sharks have $54.3 million committed to 14 players, leaving them about $10 million to fill their roster. That includes unrestricted free-agent-to-be Ryane Clowe, whom the club will likely want to re-sign. The new CBA does reportedly allow for two amnesty buyouts, though, so the Sharks could clear some salary that way. If not, they’ll have to do it via the trade market or fill their roster with a number of players on the cheap. Stay tuned.
5) Will the shortened season help or hurt the Sharks?
The Sharks had 11 players take part in competitive play overseas at some point during the lockout, so they should be in as good or better shape than the competition. If Sheppard makes the club he’ll be in game shape from the get-go, too.
At the same time, San Jose’s primary competition to regain the Pacific Division crown will probably be the Los Angeles Kings, who played into the middle of June on their way to the Stanley Cup. The Kings, who are returning essentially their entire championship team, should benefit from the extra rest and avoid the so-called Stanley Cup hangover.
The Sharks may have one ace up their sleeve, though, in associate coach Larry Robinson. Robinson was an assistant coach with the New Jersey Devils in 1995 during the last shortened season, and all the Devils did that year was win the Stanley Cup. Perhaps Robinson gained some knowledge from that season to pass it along to his new club?
6) Will the fans return?
Fan backlash on some level is inevitable, and gauging the response on Twitter, many are still angry. And, rightfully so. In September, a high level executive told me that we could probably come up with the main bullet points of what the new CBA was going to look like, and it wouldn’t be all that different from what was signed. He was right. Why it took so long to come to the agreement that they did is baffling, to put it politely.
But, the hard-core fans never left, in my opinion, especially in big hockey markets on the East Coast, in Canada, and here in the Bay Area. The recent ECHL San Francisco Bulls game at HP Pavilion, which drew more than 12,000 fans, is enough evidence for me that the Sharks shouldn’t have much trouble keeping HP Pavilion at capacity. Keep in mind that NHL clubs held on to season ticket money for games that weren’t yet cancelled, including the Sharks, so many seats in hockey-centric markets are already sold and paid for.
As for the casual fans, I think this agreement was signed just in time. Many of these types of fans pay some attention to their favorite club in the fall, but don’t really start getting into their local team until after football season is over. This is still a football country, after all. Now that there are only a handful of NFL teams remaining, hockey fans will get on board the bandwagon, and in a few weeks time the lockout could be all but forgotten.