COLLINGWOOD coach Nathan Buckley has played down fears Dale Thomas' contract negotiations - which are on hold while the midfielder recovers from ankle surgery - could become an off-field distraction similar to last year's Travis Cloke saga.
Thomas is no certainty to play against North Melbourne in round one on Easter Sunday, as Buckley on Friday could not say when the 25-year-old would return.
Thomas is yet to resume running since having surgery late last year, after he returned to training and found he was still hampered, and said last weekend he was reluctant to enter contract talks while he was still recovering.
The onballer will be a restricted free agent at the end of the season if he doesn't re-sign beforehand, and will likely attract big offers from rival clubs. He was targeted by Greater Western Sydney before signing a two-year deal with the Magpies in 2011.
Thomas said last weekend he was mindful of avoiding the ''circus'' that Cloke's contract talks became last year, when the forward and club put talks on hold until after the season, before they agreed on a five-year deal.
But Buckley watered down questions that negotiations with Thomas could become another distraction.
''We've got about 40 per cent of our list coming out of contract this year and we'll deal with those guys appropriately at the right times,'' he said.
Buckley was less certain about whether Thomas would be fit enough to play the Kangaroos at Etihad Stadium on March 31.
''It's still a couple of months away. He'll need to get some solid training in and get up to speed before he's ready to play games of footy,'' he said. ''Whether that's late in the NAB [Cup] or early in the home and away [season] will depend on the speed of his recovery.
''He's had a modified pre-season. Has got a lot of fitness work in but is not on legs, so we'll have to judge that as we go.''
Collingwood on Friday announced a three-year deal with Holden, believed to be close to $1 million a year, in which Buckley and his coaching staff will wear the company's logo on their shirts.
The signing of Holden is further evidence of Collingwood's financial clout, but Magpies chief executive Gary Pert questioned why his club faced being slugged under a luxury tax aimed at reducing the disparity between the league's heavyweights and poorer clubs.
The AFL is considering taxing clubs on football department spending and taking greater control of clubs' revenue streams, and distributing money to struggling clubs.
Pert said all clubs had agreed to distribute funds on an unequal basis - providing more to the poorer clubs - when the AFL signed its $1.25 billion media rights deal in 2011.
''Collingwood signed off on that dis-equal contribution specifically so we wouldn't be going through this, that we wouldn't have our revenue streams re-attacked,'' Pert said.
''In some ways, I just find it amazing that a year, 18 months later, we are reassessing that. So I'm very surprised.''