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For NHL players, the cheque is (nearly) in the mail

NHL players are like the rest of us when it comes to the rudimentary details of life - and hey, let's face it, the day your tax refund arrives is usually a pretty good day, no matter how much money you might earn.

Well, the NHL equivalent of the tax refund is the player escrow cheque, which after a lengthy delay that signified the first real skirmish between the league and the players association over upcoming CBA negotiations, they should be arriving in the mail shortly, maybe even before next weekend's all-star break.

The NHL issued a statement Friday confirming that fact, although it is unknown exactly when the players will receive their share.

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"The NHL and the NHLPA have reached a settlement of their dispute over 2010-11 Hockey Related Revenue (HRR). The return of Escrow monies to the Players and Revenue Sharing payments to the Clubs were on hold while these matters were being resolved. The Players' Association and the League have also reached an agreement about how some of the disputed HRR issues will be addressed for this season (2011-12). The disbursement of Escrow and Revenue Sharing monies will occur in the coming weeks."

The cheques were delayed this year because of a dispute between the NHL and the NHL players association over what constitutes hockey-related revenue for the 2010-11 season under the collective bargaining agreement. Back in the fall, the NHLPA made the case that the $25-million subsidy paid to the league by the city of Glendale to underwrite their operating losses for the Phoenix Coyotes (and a similar payment made by the city of Nashville to the Predators) should count as part of the league's gross revenues.

Since the players are guaranteed 57 per cent of the overall take under their deal with the owners - it's a partnership remember - a favourable ruling would bump the players' share by many millions.

Escrow is the CBA mechanism designed to keep the above percentages straight - which means that every two weeks, on payday, during the regular season, a varying amount is withheld from the players paycheques, in the same way that income tax is also withheld.

Eventually, the league's revenue numbers come in, the accountants tally them up, and the players usually get a significant chunk of their cash back because the NHL is doing pretty well these days - and have managed to grow the revenue pie each year, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.

Of course, if things are so rosy, surely that means that Bettman and players' association executive director Donald Fehr should be able to wrap up the new round of CBA negotiations that are likely to get under way soon with a quick phone call, right?

Well, probably not. Even if the big picture looks pretty good, the fact that franchises in St. Louis, Phoenix and elsewhere are so hard to sell has to tell you that the model isn't exactly working the way the NHL imagined it would when the current agreement was negotiated (at the cost of the 2004-05 season, making it the only pro sports league in history to lose an entire year to a labour dispute).

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Two of the fixes that the owners will want for sure: 1. Knocking the players overall share closer to the new NBA levels, where a seven-week work stoppage earlier this year resulted in a 50-50 split between owners and players; and 2. Tinkering with the gap between the salary cap ceiling and floor. Coming out of the lockout, teams were limited to a $39-million payroll, but were required to spend a minimum of $23-million. Because the business has prospered since then, the ceiling is now $64.3-million and the floor $48.3-million - and the latter is an unsustainable figure for small-market U.S. teams.

Weirdly, the players (under former executive director Bob Goodenow) weren't even all that insistent on a salary-cap floor in the last round of negotiations; it was something the NHL gave them. There will probably be a floor in the new CBA as well, but the gap will be wider than $16-million, just so the Nashvilles, Phoenixes and St. Louises can set their budgets and spend to their limits. The gaps between the haves and have-nots will widen financially, although how that actually plays out on the ice remains to be seen.

SHUFFLING OFF TO BUFFALO: All of which makes a nice transition to a discussion of the Buffalo Sabres, the latest team to discover that bumping the payroll doesn't necessarily translate into on-ice success. For years, the Sabres were another small-market team, spending judiciously, and occasionally letting star players (Chris Drury, Daniel Briere) go because they couldn't - or wouldn't - meet their payroll demands. Everything was supposed to change this summer, when new owner Terry Pegula opened his checkbook to add the likes of Christian Ehrhoff, Robyn Regehr and Ville Leino. It was a psychological as much as a practical gesture - a sign that the Sabres were playing with the big boys now and could flex their financial muscle with the best of them. Why they even took a bad contract off of Calgary's hands (Ales Kotalik's) to make the Regehr trade possible, even though they had no intention of keeping Kotalik on their NHL roster.

So what happens? After a semi-promising start, the bottom completely falls out and now, after 11 consecutive road losses, the Sabres look like the most dispirited, disorganized team in the NHL, searching for answers and seemingly unable to come up with any.

Two years removed from a Vezina Trophy season, goaltender Ryan Miller looks completely lost. Ehrhoff got all that money because he scored 50 points for the Vancouver Canucks last year, tied with Dan Boyle and Kris Letang for seventh among NHL defenceman. This year, he's been hurt and is nowhere to be found in the top 20. For his last seven years in Calgary, Regehr was always a plus player, someone who adapted pretty well to the "new" NHL, even if he wasn't the most mobile of rearguards. This year, he's a minus-13. Leino, who thrived in Philadelphia largely because of a nice fit on the line with Briere and Scott Hartnell, hasn't found any chemistry with anyone in Buffalo - and 10 points in his first 35 games is the result. Leino's play with the Sabres is reminiscent of the 55 games he played over two years for the Detroit Red Wings, breaking into the NHL, when he managed just 16 points. As for Brad Boyes, who was picked up at last year's trading deadline as a salary dump by the Blues, he has been the same maddeningly inconsistent player that has seen him drop from the career high 72 points he recorded in the 08-09 season to just 11 in his first 33 this year.

It's a mess and cleaning it up is going to be a challenge because of a lesson that every GM with money to burn eventually realizes - the free-agent premiums you pay to sign players on July 1 will come back to haunt you eventually. Strange how roles reverse. The Sabres' New York state rivals, the Rangers, finally figured that out. They now operate the way the Detroit Red Wings do - with judicious free-agent buys (Brad Richards, Marian Gaborik) supplemented by a whole lot of homegrown talent (just about everybody else on their NHL roster). The Sabres, meanwhile, take a page out of the Rangers' old operating manual and it blows up in their faces.

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LEAF TRADE TALK: Even without the injured Jon Michael Liles, the Toronto Maple Leafs have seven NHL-calibre defencemen on their roster, meaning that somebody pretty good sits out most nights - either one of their youngsters (Jake Gardiner had his turn this week) or the veteran Mike Komisarek. It is a position of strength and because young defencemen are so valuable and so hard to develop, there will be a temptation to keep them all around because, let's face it, you can never have too many, even if it means tough line-up choices for coach Ron Wilson when they all get healthy. But this is why all the Luke Schenn talk. If the Leafs legitimately want to add a big-bodied top-six forward, it will likely cost them Schenn, just because his value, as a top-five draft choice, far exceeds what Carl Gunnarson or Keith Aulie or Cody Franson would fetch in a trade. This is a reality of the NHL trade game. You move a little piece, you get a little piece back. You move a big piece, you might get Bobby Ryan.

TOUGH TALK IN BOSTON: One of the first players traded away by Dale Tallon when he took over as the Florida Panthers' GM two years ago was Nathan Horton, who landed in Boston, and promptly won a Stanley Cup (though he was on the sidelines for the final games, thanks to the Aaron Rome hit). But Horton's inconsistency, which is what got him turfed out of Florida, surfaced again when the Bruins played Florida earlier this week, and though a member of the Bruins' No. 1 line, Horton only earned 16:39 of ice time from coach Claude Julien. The Bruins have stumbled just a little these past few weeks, after two sensational months, and with Brad Marchand suspended, the Bruins needed more from Horton, not less, and Julien was not afraid to say so, as reported by the Boston Globe and Herald: "Horts has got to pick up his game. No ifs or buts about it,'' Julien said. "A guy his size has got to get more physically involved. He's got to compete a lot harder. He's skating hard. You see him on the backcheck, he skates hard. But we need more from him."

I N THE NICK OF TIME: HBO's 24/7 gets most of the ink, but the NBC Sports Network has a new series called NHL 36, in which cameras follow one player for 36 hours. The first victim - er subject - was Chicago's Patrick Kane and Kane is a natural, who likes the spotlight just fine. Lidstrom is the opposite - 41, a family man, steady as she goes in terms of his personality. Lidstrom is one of the least known superstars in the game, gracious but ultra-quiet. It will be interesting to see if they can tell us something we don't already know about him.

ORIGINAL SIX HEAVEN: Speaking of Boston, the Rangers, Chicago and Detroit, all four are among the top five teams in the league through Friday morning which, according to, is the first time since the 1973-74 season when four Original Six teams are ranked this high this deep into the season. The only interloper this time around is St. Louis, revitalized under new coach Ken Hitchcock, and destined to get a new owner soon, according to the Post-Dispatch, which reports that minority owner Tom Stillman has put together a group that has a tentative deal in place to buy the team. You'd have to think Final Four consisting solely of Original Six teams still represents a long shot, what with Vancouver, San Jose, Philadelphia and Washington all still to be heard from, but it would make great theatre if it ever played out that way.

AND FINALLY: Miller's comments to the Buffalo News this week, spoken before he lost a 4-1 decision to Winnipeg Thursday night, were telling and insightful because they illustrate the difference between the NHL today, in the salary cap era, and the NHL two decades ago, when you'd still get the occasional blockbuster, multi-player deals designed to shake a team to its roots.

Miller's contention is that no such deal is going to happen, no matter how many Internet rumours suggest that it could: "If you guys really think there's going to be any kind of trade made anywhere that's going to affect this team any more than we can affect it in this locker room, you guys are just ... I don't know. I don't know what to think because there's no such trade.

"There's not ever going to be a trade in the history of the NHL that's going to affect anything like that. There's no chance anybody comes into this team and just shakes it up or we can even move multiple players and get any kind of return.

"If you want to just destroy a team and go out and be reckless and do something, yeah. Then there's going to be new guys in here. But other than that, this locker room is going to be pretty much the same, if not completely the same and we gotta find it from in here . You can't sit and wait for somebody else to (expletive) do it."

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