NHL lockout: Optimism thin, but new faces at table encouraging

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Chris Kunitz would like to get back to work.


For lots of good reasons.

After all, Kunitz, a left winger with the Penguins, was scheduled to earn a little more than $3.7 million in 2012-13 and, at age 33, might be approaching the twilight of his most productive years as a pro.

Kunitz has every reason, then, to hope that a meeting today between NHL players and owners in New York generates some genuine traction in the negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement that would end the lockout that has shut down the NHL for 2 1/2 months.

And he certainly couldn't be blamed for wishing that Ron Burkle of the Penguins, who will be one of six owners taking part in the session, and teammate Sidney Crosby, who is expected to be one of a half-dozen players involved, will play a prominent role in whatever progress is made.

Kunitz, though, made it clear after player-organized workout Monday at Southpointe that he's not especially optimistic that anything significant will be accomplished today in Manhattan.

Or that having Burkle and Crosby take part will have a meaningful impact.

"I don't think so, no," Kunitz said.

"I don't think it changes anything. Maybe conversation-wise, but I don't see it helping."

His perspective, it should be noted, was not shared by most of his teammates at the workout.

If anything, the majority seemed cautiously optimistic that having Crosby and Burkle in the room could give the talks a badly needed spark.

"[Crosby and Burkle] obviously have a respect for each other," defenseman Matt Niskanen said.

"That alone could lead to more productive talks, serious conversation where they're taking our proposal seriously and not walking out in 10 minutes. Ron Burkle is not going to do that to Sid."

Whether Crosby will be in on the talks with the owners won't be known until today, because he is part of a contingent of players -- Jonathan Toews, George Parros, Martin St. Louis, Kevin Westgarth and Ryan Miller reportedly are among the others -- the NHLPA has summoned to New York and from which it will choose its six representatives.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr will not take part in the talks, although each side will have at least one staff member on hand.

The meeting today will be the first foray into the negotiations for Burkle, who pointedly stays as far from the spotlight as possible.

Nonetheless, he has made a habit of having team dinners at his southern California mansion when the Penguins play there, and he routinely attends their games at Madison Square Garden in New York.

"He always seems really happy to come to the games and say 'Hi' to the guys," winger Pascal Dupuis said.

Burkle's professional acumen and reputation as an exceptional negotiator -- he's a billionaire Dupuis described as "a ridiculously successful businessman" -- pretty much assure that he will command respect and attention today from everyone in the room.

And while Crosby does not have a business background to rival Burkle's, teammates say that he will contribute more than just star power to the proceedings if, as seems likely, he's one of the players chosen to participate.

He has taken part in several sessions since the lockout began and, according to those who share a locker room with him, has studied the issues and understands them.

"He won't be just a name, sitting in the room," Niskanen said.

"He obviously cares a ton. Being out [because of injuries] the past two years and not playing, he thinks this thing should have been done a while ago.

"He's really smart. I ask him questions almost every day when he's here about what he thinks about what's going on. ... He knows the ins and outs of what's going on in the negotiations."

It shouldn't take Burkle long to get up to speed, either, assuming he isn't already there.

And while it's far from certain he and Crosby can help to get the sides on the path to an agreement, letting them try can't hurt.

"It's always great to get new blood in there," Dupuis said. "When you have the same people going over the same stuff all the time, the same ideas are going to come out.

"But some new blood in there, some new ideas, could help."

NOTE -- Penguins prospects Scott Harrington and Derrick Pouliot, both defensemen, are among 37 players invited to try out for Canada's entry in the upcoming world junior championships. ... Evgeni Malkin had a goal and two assists and won 18 of 27 faceoffs in Metallurg Magnitogorsk's 7-4 victory Monday against Spartak in a Kontinental Hockey League game.

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Dave Molinari: Dmolinari@Post-Gazette.com and Twitter: @MolinariPG.


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