6 takeaways from NHL GM meetings
At the GM meetings, Carolina's Don Waddell spoke of the challenge his team faces in light of Andrei Svechnikov's season-ending injury. Photo by Karl B DeBlaker/AP.

PALM BEACH, Fla. — The end of the NHL’s flat-cap COVID-19 Era is finally on the horizon.

All that remains to be seen is whether it will officially arrive next season or the one after that.

The prevailing belief among general managers leaving Florida following three days of meetings seemed to be that only a modest $1 million bump was expected for 2023-24, which would raise the ceiling to $83.5 million.

But NHL commissioner Gary Bettman opened the door to a scenario that could see it jump even more than that if the NHL Players’ Association wants to engage in a negotiation.

“It could be a discussion,” Bettman said Wednesday. “We’re hearing around the bend from players and others that there may be interest in having that.”

What isn’t known is how incoming NHLPA executive director Marty Walsh feels on the matter. He won’t officially start his new role as union boss until Monday.

These are prosperous times in the industry, with the $1.5 billion debt players collectively racked up during the pandemic nearly fully repaid to owners. Bettman and Walsh’s predecessor, Donald Fehr, signed a unique CBA extension in July 2020 that called for no more than a $1 million cap jump each season until the escrow balance was made whole.

The outstanding amount is currently in the “$100 million range,” according to Bettman, which could incentivize the sides to negotiate a smoother cap increase rather than waiting another year and seeing it grow by $4.5 million or more in one jump for the 2024-25 season.

It stands as one of the first big decisions facing Walsh as he makes the transition from his current job as U.S. Secretary of Labor.

“One thing to keep in mind is if the escrow hasn’t been paid off then we’re going to have to look at raising the escrow rates, which under the CBA extension in 2020 is locked in for the last three years of the CBA term at 6%,” Bettman said. “So if you’re going to raise the cap prematurely then we’re going to have to look at the escrow percentage as well. The two are inextricably tied together.”

That line of thinking may ultimately keep the players from engaging in serious discussions on the matter. Only time will tell.

There’s no question that a healthy majority of NHL front offices are anxiously awaiting the day the cap starts to climb in a meaningful manner again, though, after enduring an extended period of austerity measures.

Is more OT coming?

So, as for what got done during the annual GM meetings, where rule changes are often discussed ...

There wasn’t much more than debate and discussion on small adjustments to what’s currently in place.

“The things that we talked about possibly changing … all fall into the category, at best, as tweaks,” Bettman said.

The most interesting of those involved the possibility of extending 3-on-3 overtime periods to seven minutes in an effort to increase the entertainment value while reducing the number of games decided by a shootout. The change from five- to seven-minute OTs has already been implemented with positive results in the ECHL and could be put before the NHL’s competition committee this spring.

There will also be further discussion about the possibility of expanding video review to cover high-sticking minors and puck-over-the-glass calls, but there’s clearly some trepidation about bogging the game down with too many stoppages.

As for the extended scratches of Jakob Chychrun, Vladislav Gavrikov and Luke Schenn for “trade-related reasons” prior to this season’s deadline, the NHL isn’t yet worried that it’s a trend that could negatively affect competitive balance.

“We saw more of it this year than we’ve ever seen before, but we’re not ready to say it’s a problem,” Bettman said.

Leafs' Dubas on O'Reilly injury, confidence in Murray

You might see the timing of a broken finger for Ryan O’Reilly as unfortunate given that it came just eight games into his tenure with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Kyle Dubas, however, views the glass as half full.

“I actually think we’ve gotten pretty fortunate with that one just with the type of break that it was and the fact that he was able to play and play a lot and play well for us off the hop,” Dubas said during a break in the GM meetings. “And then the fact that he’s probably scheduled to return before the playoffs, so he’s going to have time to ramp back up again.”

The Leafs GM paid a big price to land O’Reilly and Noel Acciari in a trade with St. Louis on Feb. 17. He sent out first-, second- and third-round picks, plus prospect Mikhail Abramov and forward Adam Gaudette for two veterans playing on expiring contracts.

O’Reilly's broken finger conjured memories of Nick Foligno, who was acquired by the Leafs at the 2021 trade deadline and was almost immediately sidelined by a back injury that kept him from making any meaningful impact in the playoffs.

The biggest difference with O’Reilly is that he’s still able to skate and keep his conditioning up while recovering from surgery. But he is losing valuable time that could be spent building chemistry with his new teammates.

Ryan O'Reilly only played eight games with the Leafs before sustaining a finger injury. Photo by Darryl Dyck/CP.

“It’s part of the risk that you take when you acquire somebody late in the year, but it could happen to any of your players on your team at any time,” Dubas said. “I think you just have to accept that it’s part of the risk when you’re evaluating those things.”

As for what he’s looking for from his team following a busy deadline period, Dubas mentioned the push to secure home-ice advantage for a first-round series with Tampa and the need to sharpen their game before that begins.

He also expressed confidence in goaltender Matt Murray, who has allowed four goals in each of the three starts he’s made since returning from an ankle injury. 

“For me, with Matt, he’s coming back off on an injury and we’ve got to continue to ramp him up similar to the last time,” Dubas said. “I think when it’s on the line he’ll be ready to go.”

Expansion not a 'front-burner' topic

The NHL has received expressions of expansion interest, according to Bettman.

"Places like Atlanta, like Houston, like Quebec City,” he said.

But the league isn’t of that mind that growing beyond the current 32-team alignment makes much sense.

“It’s not really something, at least right now, that's anywhere close to front-burner for us,” Bettman said.

The process of finding a new owner for the Ottawa Senators is getting much closer. The league won’t comment on how many bids were officially made to purchase the team from the Melnyk family, but sources say four or five groups made offers during the first round of bidding.

Once those offers have been thoroughly vetted and examined, the number of bidders will be winnowed down until the next ownership is identified.

“As we get to Phase 2, it’s a matter of weeks,” Bettman said.

Hurricanes hurting after Svechnikov injury

Had you asked Don Waddell last week what it was going to take for his Carolina Hurricanes to make their long-awaited playoff breakthrough, he would have replied “good health.”

Then bad luck arrived for the Metropolitan Division leaders in the form of an ACL tear that will require Andrei Svechnikov to have season-ending knee surgery on Thursday.

It’s a massive disappointment for one of Carolina’s rising young stars and a big blow for a team that already doesn’t score as much as the league’s other top outfits. Svechnikov had 23 goals and 55 points in 64 games. And his injury comes on the wrong side of a trade deadline period where Waddell aggressively pursued Timo Meier, only to see him land with rival New Jersey instead.

So, how do the Hurricanes gather themselves now?

“Taking away Svechnikov at this point, the message doesn’t change: The one thing about hockey, as we all know, it’s not an individual sport,” Waddell said. “It’s a team sport and we think we’ve got a pretty good team. It’s a tough one, but you can’t change it.

“We’ve got to figure out how to move forward without him.”

The GM pointed out that last year’s second-round loss to the Rangers came with No. 1 goaltender Frederik Andersen sidelined by a knee injury. He’s back in form now and has won 13 of his last 17 starts.

A send-off for Predators' Poile

I’ll leave the last word to David Poile, who was informally roasted by his colleagues Tuesday night in what will be his last appearance at the March GM meetings after working more than four decades in NHL front offices.

Before officially announcing his plans to move into an advisory role under successor Barry Trotz, the outgoing Nashville Predators GM called his mentor, Cliff Fletcher, and asked him what to expect when making that decision public.

“He said, ‘It’s unbelievable, you are going to get so many messages from friends, colleagues in the first three or four days.’ That’s exactly what happened. I literally got a couple hundred,” Poile said. “Then he said, ‘You’ll never hear from anybody again.’

“So there we go. We’re just passing through.”

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