The only thing wrong with the offer sheet the Hurricanes gave Red Wings restricted free-agent center Sergei Fedorov last week was that it ended up threatening the integrity of the game. The NHL declared the contract invalid because the deal, which guarantees Fedorov $38 million over six years, called for an additional $12 million lump payment should his team reach the third round of this year's Stanley Cup playoffs. But arbitrator John Sands ruled against the league, and the Red Wings matched the offer.
Even with Fedorov, Carolina, which at week's end was 21-30-7 and in last place in the Northeast Division, would have had little hope of qualifying for the playoffs, let alone advancing past the second round. Detroit, however, is a strong candidate to return to the Western Conference finals.
As a result of this offer and Sands's ruling, a future player contract could provide an organization financial incentive to lose. Suppose an offer sheet commands a $20 million bonus should a player's team win the essentially irrelevant regular-season title. If a top team matched the offer and retained a player under those circumstances, who could blame it for intentionally avoiding a first-place finish? The scenario is grim and realistic, especially because Mike Modano, the premier center for the Stars, the top team in the league, is set to be a restricted free agent after this season.
The decision to match the Hurricane's offer was a no-brainer for the Wings and deep-pockets owner Mike Hitch. A team can't afford to lose a player of Fedorov's caliber, even for the mandatory compensation of five first-round draft picks, which is what Detroit would have gotten had it not matched. The 28-year-old Fedorov was the NHL MVP in 1993-94 and was the league's best defensive forward in 1995-96, when he also scored 107 points. A contract that averages about $6.3 million annually is, in fact, the going rate for a star of his magnitude. (If Fedorov doesn't collect the $12 million bonus this spring, he nevertheless will get it in payments of $3 million over the next four years.)
That Fedorov has at times feuded with some of the four other Russians on the Red Wings and isn't beloved in the Detroit locker room shouldn't disrupt the Wings. Last year Fedorov, who malingered through some regular-season games, led Detroit in playoff scoring. "The players know he was a key guy last year when we won the Cup," says Wings coach Scotty Bowman. "That is what they care about."
Fedorov was brilliant in his 1997-98 debut, against the Panthers last Friday. He didn't score, but he played his usual outstanding defense. He proved he's an impact player—with the most dangerous contract in the NHL.
The Stanley Cup Is in the Stars
They're deep. They're balanced. They have the best record in the NHL (38-13-9 through Sunday). And in the eyes of a majority of the league's general managers, the Stars are the favorite to win the Stanley Cup. We asked the 26 G.M.s to forecast a Cup winner (forbidding them to vote for their own team), and 12 picked the Stars, five chose the Devils and three selected the defending champion Red Wings. The Avalanche and Flyers each received a vote, while four G.M.s abstained. "Size, skill, defense, offense—Dallas has it all," said one voter.
Goalie Ed Belfour's play under playoff pressure was the only reservation about Dallas expressed by some of the voters. "I don't like him when it comes down to the nitty-gritty," said a G.M. who picked New Jersey. Devils backers raved about netminder Martin Brodeur.