Winter is coming. More specifically, with no meaningful revenue incoming since mid-March and none on the immediate horizon, hockey’s long winter is approaching amid the uncertainty surrounding the 2020-21 NHL season.
Meetings to slash expenditures, reduce payroll and set internal hockey operations budgets below the salary cap limit have been ongoing for most of the 27 teams in off-season mode.
Six of the seven Canadian clubs have reduced the pay of staff members, including team presidents, general managers and coaches, team and league sources have told TSN. The Toronto Maple Leafs are the lone Canadian club to not reduce pay for staff to date. In all, at least 17 NHL clubs have reduced pay to hockey operations department staff members.
After seeing their pay reduced by 50 per cent – nearly twice more than the next-highest reduction in the league – the Ottawa Senators’ coaching staff appealed to the NHL for relief. With the NHL’s involvement, Senators’ coaches were recently reinstated to full pay retroactive to July 13, the opening date of training camp before the league returned to play in Edmonton and Toronto.
The NHL’s small-market teams are not alone in feeling the pinch of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Employees from the league’s head office have been working in the Toronto and Edmonton bubbles at a 25 per cent reduction since April.
Even big-market clubs, Original Six teams like Boston and Chicago, have taken measures to reduce expenses.
The Bruins requested their Jack Adams Award-winning coaching staff forego playoff bonuses to avoid hockey operations salary cuts. In June, the Blackhawks instituted a tiered staff reduction starting at 20 per cent for employees earning more than $200,000, while also eliminating bonuses.
The Buffalo Sabres are the only coaching staff to reject a request for a voluntary pay reduction. Sources indicated that the Sabres staff had pay reduced by 20 per cent from April 1 until July 13, at which point they turned down a subsequent request for a 25 per cent reduction.
Almost universally, NHL coaches – high up on the front office food chain – accepted the reductions without complaint because doing so meant that layoffs would not be necessary for other hockey operations positions, including scouts and analysts.
But the Sabres were already operating with a lean staff after 22 people were fired by the club in a June 16 bloodletting that began with GM Jason Botterill. Teams had leverage with ‘force majeure’ clauses in contracts, but those were not applicable once training camps began again and league play as a whole was no longer suspended.
It is difficult to garner a complete view of the NHL’s financial picture at both the club and/or league level. Some teams, like the Carolina Hurricanes, have not made any pay cuts to hockey operations staff but have furloughed employees on the business side of the operation. That may also be true with other clubs around the league.
What is clear is that there is more carnage to come. Two Canadian clubs – Calgary and Winnipeg – just cut employee pay, effective Sept. 1. Other teams are considering outright furloughing employees. There is a trickle-down effect that will eventually drip to players and roster construction in free agency and beyond.
Sources say the Sabres are considering an internal salary cap in the low $70 million range; the Arizona Coyotes, who recently failed to make on-time signing bonus payments to a number of players, may be operating just south of $70 million under their next GM; the Pittsburgh Penguins are reportedly planning to budget in the low-to-mid $70 million range on an $81.5 million limit.
Around the league, from Florida to Vancouver, GMs are in discussion with ownership seeking spending latitude. There will be opportunities to acquire talented players from teams who can no longer afford them – either on an internal budget or with a frozen salary cap.
“These are crazy times,” one NHL team president said Thursday, “and there is no real light at the end of the tunnel.”
Here is a list of the NHL franchises who have enacted pay cuts that include GMs, coaches and hockey operations department staff, according to team and league sources:
Anaheim Ducks: A 20 per cent reduction for salaries of $70,000 to $250,000, increasing to 25 per cent for salaries north of $250,000, through Dec. 31, 2020.
Boston Bruins: Requested coaches forego playoff bonuses for 2019-20 in order to avoid salary reductions.
Buffalo Sabres: After a 20 per cent reduction from April 1 to July 13, Sabres coaching staff rejected a request to take a voluntary 25 per cent reduction moving forward.
Calgary Flames: A 20 per cent reduction for all staff, effective Sept. 1.
Chicago Blackhawks: A 20 per cent reduction for salaries above $200,000, 15 per cent reduction for $100,000 to $200,000, with the elimination of bonuses.
Columbus Blue Jackets: Requested coaches forego playoff bonuses for 2019-20 in order to avoid salary reductions.
Dallas Stars: Full salaries reinstated on July 13 following a 30 per cent reduction in June and a 20 per cent reduction prior to June.
Edmonton Oilers: Top three coaches deferred 25 per cent for the year; a 25 per cent reduction for salaries of $150,000 or more, a 15 per cent reduction for salaries of $100,000 to $150,000 and a 10 per cent reduction for salaries under $100,000.
Los Angeles Kings: A 20 per cent reduction for all staff through Sept. 2020.
Minnesota Wild: A 20 per cent reduction for all staff salaries of $150,000 or more.
Montreal Canadiens: A 20 per cent reduction for all staff. Coaches were reinstated to full pay, but will only receive 80 per cent with the other 20 per cent to be paid at a later date.
Nashville Predators: Requested staff forego salary increases until fans return to the arena for games as opposed to a salary reduction.
Ottawa Senators: A 50 per cent reduction for all staff; coaching staff reinstated with full pay retroactive to July 13.
Pittsburgh Penguins: A 25 per cent reduction for all staff through Nov. 30, 2020.
St. Louis Blues: A 20 per cent reduction for all staff. Coaches reinstated to full pay on July 13.
Vancouver Canucks: A 20 per cent reduction for all staff. Coaches reinstated to full pay on July 13.
Winnipeg Jets: A 20 per cent reduction for all staff effective Sept. 1.
Contact Frank Seravalli on Twitter: @frank_seravalli