Labor log: An end-game timeline; the Gonchar and @penguins dynamic; Three Rivers Classic approaches.


Greetings from snowy/icy Pittsburgh, dear readers. Many days have passed since the last update – mostly because there is absolutely nothing happening on the NHL labor front.

Deputy commissioner Bill Daly, via email, said Wednesday there has been contact between the NHL and Players’ Association, but that no bargaining sessions are scheduled. Three weeks have passed since the last meaningful negotiations, and those New York sessions did not include either commissioner Gary Bettman or union chief Donald Fehr.

Games are canceled through Jan. 14, and Daly has said action must begin by “mid-January” if the 48-game schedule is to be played.

Sounds promising for the NHL this season, eh?

Might make a Penguins season ticket holder want to try out those nifty ear buds that arrived before Christmas, plug in some suitable songs (“Let it Bleed” feels right, no?), and simply tune out the sounds of silence coming from the NHL and NHLPA.

Fair enough (this blog’s new favorite phrase).

Still, consider these nuggets derived from conversations with players and league folks over the past week or so:

♦ Privately, people on both sides seem to be viewing Jan. 15 as a drop-dead date, though the NHL has never said such a date exists. If there is a belief that there will be no more small packages of cancelations, and that the next round will be the season, then there is about a three-week window, give or take, to do a deal by Jan. 10.

A player said last week that he suspected negotiations would resume Jan. 2, leaving a window of about a week, 10 days at most, to get a new labor agreement so that a seven-day camp can open prior to a start date between Jan. 18-21.

This seems a completely logical way of viewing the timeline to save the season, though logic has not played a part in these negotiations from Day 1.

♦ Nobody on the NHL front has flat-out denied the league will eventually counter the NHLPA’s current offer, many parts of which owners are said not to hate. The league is not going to play games until at least Jan. 14, though; so there is no negotiation advantage to responding to the NHLPA now as opposed to picking up talks with enough to do a deal to save the season. Putting the other side up against the clock is a tactical advantage the league seemingly would take – especially since the top officials believe Fehr’s strategy is to hold out until the last minute to get the best deal for players.

♦ Fehr seems a safe bet to stick with the NHLPA, at least according to many veterans with the Penguins. He has taken to hockey players during the past two years, and he sees potential to shape this union into something that can be a true power-playing force in future hockey matters, so the veterans have said.

Also, the idea he has lost any backing, an idea floated often in recent weeks, does not seem to mesh with reality. The veteran players said the were informed early this process could take a while, and the feel comfortable with how things are playing out – even if they are growing increasingly frustrated and, more to the point, concerned the season may be a casualty in this labor dispute.

And now for some non-labor stuff:

• Touched base with the ever-sincere Sergei Gonchar before the holiday. He, of course, is playing with best friend Evgeni Malkin for Metallurg Magnitogorsk in the KHL. There was a report out of Ottawa last week that the Penguins would bring back Gonchar when the lockout ended.

Gonchar was amused by the possibility of a Three Rivers homecoming.

He is quite pleased with the direction of things in Ottawa, though. Still, the Penguins remain the NHL club with which he will always most identify himself. The chance to play with Malkin in the NHL, perhaps to finish his NHL career, is not something Gonchar would turn down.

Something to keep in mind from the Penguins’ perspective:

They are a group in transition, having traded a foundation player (Jordan Staal). More than at any point they are a club that belongs to Malkin and Sidney Crosby, and they will probably go only so far as those two stay healthy and dominant.

Adding Gonchar would not guarantee anything, but it would take some dressing-room pressure off Malkin and Crosby. Much has been written, and is being written, about the Malkin-Gonchar relationship – but not enough attention has been paid to the close relationship Gonchar and Crosby share. Crosby described him as one of his “best” teammates.

Gonchar was the glue for the 2008-09 Penguins. Their rise from the dead coincided with his return from a preseason shoulder injury, and he teamed with Brooks Orpik to form inarguably the best defense pairing of the Crosby-Malkin era.

The Penguins clubs that played in the 2008 and 2009 Cup Finals were blessed with deep bluelines. Remember that former coach Michel Therrien inserted veteran Darryl Sydor into the lineup when Kris Letang struggled during the 2008 Final, and Dan Bylsma turned to Alex Goligoski when Gonchar was hurt midway through the 2009 Cup run?

A shortened season might benefit the Penguins this season, because even with the loss of Staal and some other changes, they remain a group of players familiar with one another. There will be few players needing to adjust to a new system. Adding Gonchar to that mix would be adding a veteran that knows the group and the system, and it could pave the way for these defense pairings:

Paul Martin-Letang; Gonchar-Orpik; Matt Niskanen-Simon Despres; and depth with the likes of Deryk Engelland, Ben Lovejoy and guys like Dylan Reese in the minors.

That top six would rival anybody in the East, especially because each unit would have a strong puck-mover – something that is a must for Bylsma’s system. Also, it would provide some cover for Despres, who as a rookie would benefit by receiving a push from ready vets such as Engelland and Lovejoy.

Penguins GM Ray Shero said you need 10 quality defensemen to win in the NHL. The salary cap does not allow for endlessly deep bluelines. But adding Gonchar, if the Penguins could, would turn a possible question mark into perhaps the club’s great strength.

Ask this: Would fans feel more comfortable knowing a shortened-season run by the Penguins included a Sarge?

• The Three Rivers Classic starts Friday at Consol Energy Center. A lower-bowl sellout is expected, which is no insignificant accomplishment considering the Penguins have not been able to use their multitude of platforms to promote this college hockey showcase. Robert Morris takes on upstart Penn State in one Friday game, with Ohio State and Miami University (Ohio) in another. A championship Saturday follows.

This is no mere test-run for the 2012 Frozen Four. The Three Rivers Classic is something the Penguins and Robert Morris plan to make an annual winter event, and the fact that about 10,000 people will take in Day 1 during a season when there has been no NHL – hey, that speaks to just how far Pittsburgh has come as a hockey town.

This isn’t just a Penguins hockey town anymore, kids. That’s a good thing for puckheads like this blog author and Josh Yohe, who will have the Classic covered for Trib Total Media’s hockey team.