Will four young Edmonton Oilers stars — four potential future NHL All-Stars — play for the Oklahoma City Barons all season?
While a deadline probably is several weeks away, the next two days could be pivotal if the National Hockey League is to salvage the 2012-13 season.
Six NHL owners will meet with players on Tuesday. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA boss Donald Fehr won't attend the meeting. On Wednesday, owners are conducting a board of governors meeting.
“It seems like it's something new every week,” said Barons forward Taylor Hall, who has played in Edmonton the past two seasons. “One week there's hope. The next week there's a lot of doubt whether there's even going to be a season.
“From what I've heard it seems like we're close on some things but at the same time very far apart.”
Mathematically, NHL owners and the players union don't seem that far apart. Philosophically, the divide is gigantic as the lockout approaches three months.
There's still time to salvage a shortened 50- or 62-game season. But there's growing sentiment the entire 2012-13 NHL season could be canceled like it was eight years ago.
“When there's been some optimism it's usually gone right back to the negative,” said Jordan Eberle, second in the American Hockey League in scoring. “I wouldn't be surprised if it lasted all year. I just try to take my mind off it. My focus is here.”
Negotiations continued through mid-February before the 2004-05 season was canceled. This time, the deadline most likely would be a lot earlier.
“It's getting down to the nitty-gritty,” said Barons coach Todd Nelson. “Some decisions are going to have to be made the next couple of weeks. If they want to play a season they'll have to start playing pretty soon after New Year's. It will take some time to hammer out the details.
“Who knows what's going to happen? Right now the players here are treating it like they'll be here the whole year. The further it goes on, for obvious reasons, it doesn't look very good.”
Hall, Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins are allowed to play in the AHL during the lockout because they're still in their three-year entry-level contracts.
Nugent-Hopkins was the No. 1 overall pick in 2011. Hall was the No. 1 overall pick in 2010. Eberle, a first-round pick in 2008, played in last year's NHL All-Star Game.
The other cornerstone player is rookie defenseman Justin Schultz. The former University of Wisconsin star leads the AHL in scoring.
Led by the Oilers' Fab Four, the Barons recently went eight consecutive games without losing in regulation before a loss Friday night at Houston.
“As much as I like it here (in Oklahoma City), and like playing with the guys, I want to play in the NHL,” Hall said. “That's the best league in the world. We want to hone our skills against the best players in the world.
“We're having a lot of fun here. We've been playing good hockey lately. Nuge, Jordan and myself are having a lot of fun playing on a line together. But we want to be in the NHL at some point this year, playing in front of our fans.”
NHL games already have been canceled through Dec. 14 as well as the Jan. 1 Winter Classic and the All-Star Game.
Two major issues are how to close a $182 million gap in the NHL Players Association's “make whole” salaries proposal in addition to how quickly to transition to a 50-50 split of hockey related revenues. Players received 57 percent in the previous contract.
“Being in Edmonton would be the best-case scenario,” Eberle said. “If the season were to get started at some point it would be pretty exciting. But with the lockout, this is the next best scenario for us to be down here working together.
“This gives us a chance to develop some chemistry on and off the ice, a lot of key guys that will be in Edmonton for years to come. If we can continue to win here it's going to be fun.”