NEWARK, N.J. - Despite the devastating loss of an entire season in 2004-05, when the NHL and the players association last met at the bargaining table, commissioner Gary Bettman said he does not understand the negativity surrounding the impending expiration of the current collective bargaining agreement.

Bettman says the NHL is in a different place now.

It's easy to feel that way after posting revenues of $3.3 billion this season, marking the seventh straight year the league has rewritten its record.

"I don't understand both the speculation and the degree of negativity that [negotiations] connote considering we . . . have yet to have substantive discussion on what we may each be looking for in collective bargaining," Bettman said at his annual state of the game address prior to Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals Wednesday night. "If somebody is suggesting it, it's either because there's something in the water, people still have the NBA and NFL on the brain, or they're just looking for news on a slow day. It is nothing more than speculation at this point."

The current CBA expires on Sept. 15, on the eve of the opening of training camps. Bettman revealed on Wednesday that the two sides are expected to meet for the first time "in the next few weeks."

NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr, the man who led baseball's players through the 1994 strike and World Series cancellation, watched Bettman speak from the back of the room.

Fehr, who later addressed the assembled media, said he was surprised by the $3.3 billion figure, saying it was "higher than the estimates we've been working with."

Both Bettman and Fehr recognized that there is not the same "atmosphere" from 2004 that "presaged a conflict," as Fehr said. Then again, Fehr noted that it is "foolish enterprise" to make predictions in this business.

"Players understand what happened last time," Fehr said. "And that's part of the backdrop of what these negotiations will be about."

Fehr said it would be difficult to compare this bargaining to the recent NFL or NBA lockouts, especially since he is relatively new to the NHL and only had experience in baseball. Clearly, the NHL's owners will want a bigger piece of the revenue share. NHL players currently take a 57 percent cut. The NBA and NFL just bargained their players down to the 50 percent range.

But Fehr scoffed at the notion that the NHL players would be left with a 24 percent rollback in salaries, like they began the 2005-06 season.

For now, both sides seem cautiously optimistic that next season will start on time - even if formal negotiations are starting nearly 6 months later than they were originally scheduled.

"We're in a completely different situation," Bettman said. "We've seen the game grow. We've seen incredible competitive balance. We've seen record revenues set each year. But that doesn't mean there aren't going to be adjustments that each of us want to look at. Time will tell how this all sorts out."

Slap shots

Gary Bettman said he believed the Devils' debt level and ability to repay loans would be refinanced with lenders in a few weeks to a manageable level . . . Bettman could not say with "100 percent guarantee" whether the Phoenix Coyotes would remain in the desert for next season, but the league has not discussed a "Plan B" for the franchise it has owned for the last three seasons . . . Bettman commended dean of discipline Brendan Shanahan after his first year on the job, saying concussions were down for the first time in 3 years with 50,000 hits delivered throughout the season.

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