Top Shelf: 'The hill we die on'

With everything that has transpired thus far during the NHL lockout it should have come as no surprise when the latest round of negotiations crashed and burned on Thursday night.

Still, when NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr stood at the podium on Thursday evening and spoke about his union's latest proposal it seemed like there was still a chance for good news on the horizon.

According to Fehr, the owners and players were in agreement on the "dollars" involved in this labor dispute and the overall tone of his press conference was anything but pessimistic.

However, mere minutes after Fehr initially left the podium he returned to say that the NHL left him a voicemail that claimed the PA's offer was "unacceptable." Shortly after that, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman held a press conference of his own where he said the owners were "at a loss to explain what happened." For good measure, Bettman also accused Fehr of "spinning us all into an emotional frenzy" due to his glass-is-half-full remarks.

Admittedly, earlier this week it was easy to get wrapped up in the optimism that came with the immediate success of the player/owners-only meetings. Those talks did not include either Bettman or Fehr and the strategy seemed like it was working. After all, those meetings on Monday and Tuesday went so well that NHLPA special counsel Steve Fehr and NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly stood side-by-side for a joint press conference.

As it turns out, the Steve Fehr/Daly presser and the goodwill displayed on the first two days of the players-owners meetings were symbolic signs of optimism and not the genuine article. When it comes down to actually negotiating a deal its pretty clear that both sides are still convinced they can get everything they want out of the next collective bargaining agreement.

That's not to say that the owners and players failed to make meaningful concessions in the proposals they offered this week, but there is still no willingness on either side to move far enough on the issues that are essential to getting a CBA done.

The biggest issue for the owners is contract length and Daly may have had the quote of the lockout when on Thursday he declared that issue to be "the hill we die on."

Jeez, Bill, do you think you could be a little more dramatic?

Here's the issue in a nutshell: the owners want contract lengths to be capped at five years while the players' best offer would limit the number of years a player can be signed for to eight.

If Daly's "hill we die on" stance is to be taken seriously than the season may be lost. It seems possible that the players may agree to less than eight years for max contracts, but it's doubtful they'll go as low as five. The previous CBA included no restrictions on the lengths of contracts, so going from unlimited to five does seem a bit unreasonable.

For the players, the biggest issue is still the "make whole" payments that determine how existing contracts will be honored. At one time the two sides were close to $1 billion apart on that issue but progress has been made over the last few months, leading to the NHL's proposal from earlier this week that cut the disparity to around $100 million.

The problem with the owners' latest concession on "make whole" was also tied to the two sides agreeing to a 10-year CBA, or double the length the NHLPA wants. When the players didn't jump on that deal, many owners were taken aback and that led to the breakdown of this week's negotiations. As Bettman relayed through his remarks on the Thursday evening, the NHL's latest "make whole" offer has been withdrawn thanks to what he called a "shockingly silent" response from the players.

The NHL's latest attempt at solving the "make whole" dilemma illustrates a key problem in these negotiations. Too often it seems like when either side offers a meaningful concession it is tied to some kind of catch. So, in reality it's a way for the players or owners to compromise on one issue while grabbing a bigger piece of the pie in some other aspect of negotiations.

Those type of give and takes are typical in labor disputes and at some point one of those offers may be reasonable enough to lead to actual progress.

As it stands now, however, there is little reason to be hopeful. Maybe in another week or two this recent stand-still will give way to a round of negotiations that could actually end this dispute.

If not, at least the NHL let us know on which "hill" we can witness the dying moments of the 2012-13 season.