Another Bold Stroke
For the third straight year Pierre Lacroix put Colorado in position to win the Cup, this time by trading for Rob Blake
Each year at about this time Avalanche general manager Pierre Lacroix makes the league's most dramatic bid for the Stanley Cup. In February 1999, he acquired 5'6" snaggle-toothed sniper Theo Fleury in a trade with the Flames, and last year he nabbed legendary defenseman Ray Bourque in a deal with the Bruins. Last week the putative Cup-clinching acquisition came in the form of 6'4", 227-pound Norris Trophy candidate Rob Blake from the Kings. "Does getting me mean they've got the Cup?" asked Blake after his first practice with the Avalanche last Saturday. "I hope it does."
Fleury and Bourque helped Colorado skate tantalizingly close to the chalice—it lost Game 7 of the Western Conference finals both years—and the addition of Blake, 31, immediately transformed the already imposing Avalanche, which had an NHL-best 40-12-9-2 record through Sunday, into what Red Wings general manager Ken Holland calls "the overwhelming favorite to win."
To get Blake, who will be an unrestricted free agent after the season, and useful third-line rookie center Steven Reinprecht, the Avalanche surrendered 25-year-old right wing Adam Deadmarsh, 29-year-old defenseman Aaron Miller, a first-round pick in the 2001 draft and future considerations. "We made this move because we want to play the last game in June," says Lacroix. "We had enough assets so that we could offer them a bouquet of things."
While rumors in recent weeks had Blake going to another contender, such as the Blues, Flyers, Maple Leafs or Red Wings, Lacroix quietly went to work. In early February he phoned Kings general manager Dave Taylor and said, "If you're serious about moving Rob Blake, call me back. But only if you're serious, because we are. We did it with Fleury and Bourque, and we can do it again."
After Taylor's last-ditch efforts to re-sign Blake failed on Feb. 16—Blake declined a three-year, $24 million extension—Taylor returned the call to Lacroix. Over the next week the two general managers spoke twice a day. When the deal was completed, Taylor said it was "by far the best offer we got from anyone."
Los Angeles did well to land two solid regulars in their prime, but Lacroix, who pushed for the inclusion of the nifty Reinprecht, could afford to pay a fair price for the big chalupa. Excellent drafting in recent years has loaded Colorado with so many good forwards—Chris Drury, 24, Milan Hejduk, 25, and Alex Tanguay, 21, to name three—that not even the loss of the gutsy and talented Deadmarsh should hurt the Avalanche. The only ones who should suffer are Colorado's conference foes, who are now under greater pressure to deal as the March 13 trade deadline approaches. "Do you respond?" says Holland. "How do you respond to someone getting Rob Blake?"
Probably with a heavy sigh. In Blake, who led NHL blueliners with 18 goals, the Avalanche landed one of the league's top three defensemen: a player with a 100-mph slap shot who also skates well, moves the puck smartly and can obliterate opponents with a vaudevillian thrust of his backside. "I saw this big ass coming at me, and I didn't think much of it," Oilers winger Anson Carter once said of Blake's patented hip check. "Then it pretty much broke me in half."
Blake's long-term future in Colorado will remain uncertain until after the season. He has no desire to lose his bargaining power and sign before then, and Lacroix doesn't negotiate during the season. "When I met with Pierre, there was no contract talk at all," says Blake. "He was only focused on this year. It was all about the playoffs."
Paired with Bourque, Blake played 25 minutes in his Avalanche debut last Friday and assisted on the first goal in a 4-1 home win over the Wild. On power plays Colorado sent out Blake, Bourque, Hejduk, Peter Forsberg and Joe Sakic, with Patrick Roy minding the net-all six were starters in last month's All-Star Game. "That's amazing," Drury said after scoring two goals against Minnesota. "I guess we should be favored to win the Cup."