Moreover, as Kings general manager Dave Taylor says, "under free agency you pay more than you really believe a player is worth. In a lot of cases you don't get a return on your investment." Taylor knows. Last summer Los Angeles gave free-agent defenseman Steve Duchesne $15 million over four years. Duchesne performed so ineffectively that in March, LA bought out his contract for $4.25 million and traded him to the Flyers. Thus the Kings spent upwards of $7 million for 60 games from Duchesne. Free-agent success stories such as that of Maple Leafs goalie Curtis Joseph, who signed a four-year, $24 million deal last July and then went 35-24-7 as Toronto's MVP this season, have been rare.
So while Leetch and Fleury—who's also 31, durable and can carry a team—will cash in, second-tier free agents such as Flyers winger Mark Recchi, Sharks center Vincent Dam-phousse and Avalanche winger Valeri Kamensky could find the market tighter than ever. "In the last three summers a lot of teams have spent a lot of money and didn't get better," says Ducks general manager Pierre Gauthier. "Lessons were learned."
This may not be the best time for most players to be heading into unrestricted free agency, but it's a fine time to be Brian Leetch.
The Goals That Count
Unheralded performers often shine in the postseason, but it was nonetheless noteworthy that through Sunday's games 11 players had scored their first career playoff goals. Only two of the players, forward Jan Hrdina and defenseman Greg Andrusak of the Penguins, were rookies, and the group included Blues veteran left wing Scott Pellerin, who had failed to score in 16 playoff games. In Game 1 against the Coyotes, Pellerin broke in alone on an empty net, yet he held the puck cautiously until he was a few feet from the crease. "I wanted to make sure," he said. "This is the Stanley Cup playoffs."