TORONTO -- The NHL and NHL Players' Association continued to plug away at a new deal with another small group session Monday, making slow and steady progress towards finally ending the ninth-month lockout.
While the economic framework is largely in place - based on a salary cap - there remains enough work to drag this out another two weeks or so, according to sources.
The basic structure of the salary cap - linked league-wide to revenues with an upper and lower limit on team payrolls - is mostly ironed out. The two sides have made headway in the areas of free agency, qualifying offers, salary arbitration, entry-level contracts, drug testing, rule changes and Olympic participation.
On the Olympic issue, the union appears to have scored a victory, with the league leaning towards participation in the Turin Games next February, although that is not signed, sealed and delivered just yet.
The two sides are narrowing in on a collective bargaining agreement that the league believes will bring competitive balance, narrowing the gap between the have and have-nots.
The tedious process of agreeing on the language of the document still awaits and that's no small task. The NHL announced a deal 10 years ago, in a hurry to salvage the 1994-95 season, and was later dismayed at how some parts of the agreement ended up sounding different then what it believed was first agreed to.
All the I's will be dotted and T's crossed this time around before a news conference is called.
Expect an entry draft to be held at the first opportune time after that.
When the deal is finally announced, a new world awaits everyone in the industry. For starters, there aren't that many players under contract for the 2005-06 season. Counting players who were on NHL rosters for at least 90 days in 2003-04, 288 players will be under contract July 1, and that's counting some fringe names.
NHL GMs will have their work cut out for them, not only learning a new system but also needing to quickly stock their rosters. The Boston Bruins and New York Islanders have the fewest players under contract for next season - five apiece - while the Washington Capitals have only six and the Carolina Hurricanes seven.
"We only have seven guys under contract but we also have some very young core players to re-sign who are restricted free agents," Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford said Monday from Raleigh. "After our run to the final (in 2002), we've been through a period of kind of re-tooling our team. So we've been planning for the new system, whatever that new system is."
At the other end of the spectrum, the Phoenix Coyotes already have 21 players signed for next season, while the Columbus Blue Jackets have 20.
Given that the union's offer of a 24 per cent salary rollback remains a key part of the new deal, the NHL will return without any skaters over the $10-million US range. The league's highest-paid player, Jaromir Jagr of the New York Rangers, will see his salary adjusted from $11 million to $8.36 million.