If the NHL wants to close the gap between its haves (the playoff-bound and profitable teams) and its have-nots (the lottery-bound and cash-strapped ones), one place to start would be moving the trading deadline to a date much earlier in the season. On March 23, just 25 days before the end of the regular season, there were a record 20 deadline-day deals. Sure, it's logical for Stanley Cup contenders to load up for the postseason and for clubs in a re-building stage to stockpile draft choices and prospects, but the late-season flurry not only hurts the league's competitive balance, it also hurts the players, who are often upset by the swirling trade rumors. "Players don't want to be traded, especially this late in the season," says Flyers wing Mikael Renberg. "It's incredibly disruptive."
"By now more teams know they're out of the playoffs, so some are just unloading [salaries]," says Red Wings general manager Ken Holland, who made four swaps on deadline day to fortify Detroit's bid for a third straight Stanley Cup. "They've got five, six home games left and they're rebuilding, yet they're still charging the paying public [the same ticket prices]. There are a lot of unrestricted free agents, guys with families. If the deadline was four to six weeks earlier, there would probably be less movement."
Of the 11 teams most likely to miss the playoffs, the only ones that didn't deal on deadline day were the Canucks, whose trade on March 23 of center Peter Zezel to the Mighty Ducks was voided when Zezel refused to report to Anaheim for personal reasons, and the Islanders, who had made four moves the previous week. At the deadline, only 13% of the NHL's regular season remained, far less than the NFL (67%), NBA (60%) or major league baseball (35%) had left at their most recent trade deadlines.
Respected general managers such as the Predators' David Poile and the Oilers' Glen Sather have lobbied for an earlier deadline, a topic NHL vice president Colin Campbell says the league will address this summer. "Lately the financial dynamics have changed," Campbell says. "Maybe the teams that have the financial wherewithal to rent players are too easily tempted to do so. It certainly gives teams that aren't going to make [the playoffs] a chance to dump salaries."
And, in turn, dump the league's integrity.
Nicklas Lidstrom's Decision
Should He Stay Or Go Home?
Nicklas and Annika Lidstrom are strict parents, and they always remind their two young sons to watch their language. The problem isn't the words the boys use so much as the tongue in which they speak. Kevin, 5, and Adam, 3, both of whom attend a suburban Detroit preschool, are starting to talk in English more often than their Swedish parents want Lidstrom, a star defenseman for the Red Wings, is considering drastic action: He is thinking about returning to Sweden to play pro hockey.
If the 28-year-old Lidstrom, a restricted free agent in July 2000, were to sign a new contract with Detroit, he would be rewarded handsomely, perhaps with as much as $6 million per season, more than enough to pay for a full-time Swedish tutor. If he returned to his V�ster�s club so that Kevin could start kindergarten in Sweden, Lidstrom would play in a league in which salaries rarely rise above $500,000. "Yes," he says. "I would play for that." In early January, Lidstrom even sent his agent, Don Meehan, written instructions not to negotiate a new deal with the Red Wings until he reaches a decision.
While it is common for Swedes to return to their homeland late in their NHL careers-former Canadiens star Mats Naslund played four seasons in Eirope before briefly resurfacing in 1994-95 with the Bruins—it would be shocking for a Norris Trophy-caliber defenseman to bolt in midcareer. The only top Swede to walk away in his prime was Hakan Loob, who had 193 goals in six NHL seasons before returning home at age 29 following the Flames' Stanley Cup victory in 1989 to play for F�rjestad.
"We like Detroit," says Lidstrom. "That's no problem. The boys are still more comfortable talking in Swedish [which is all they are allowed to speak in the house], but they come home from preschool with more and more words in English. We'll wait until this summer to decide. Whatever the decision, it won't be a question of money."