Free-agent-to-be Martin Lapointe is in prime position to cash in this summer
With unrestricted free agency looming this summer for stars such as Avalanche center Joe Sakic and defenseman Rob Blake and Devils wing Alexander Mogilny, the Stanley Cup finals are a timely audition for the megabuck contracts they'll be seeking. However, the catch of the unrestricted crop may be right wing Martin Lapointe of the Red Wings. Less heralded and cheaper to sign than those two players, Lapointe, who will seek a long-term deal paying about $4 million per season (probably less than half what Sakic will get), had career highs of 27 goals and 57 points this season. More important, he has the grit craved by teams that have struggled to survive in the postseason crucible.
Unlike most players, who must be at least 31 years old with four years of NHL experience to qualify for unrestricted free agency, Lapointe earned that right because he's a 10-year vet who has never been a free agent and whose salary ($1.25 million) was less than the league average ($1.5 million). At 27, the 5'11", 200-pound Lapointe is a rare find among unrestricted free agents: a quality player who has already won two Stanley Cup rings and whose skills are not likely to decline in the near future. Says his agent, Gilles Lupien, a former NHL defenseman, "How many teams can make an offer to a player who is asking for $10 million? But Martin's value to almost any team would be that high."
Lapointe's booming body-checks and acerbic chatter have made him one of the game's most infuriating players to skate against. This season, on advice from linemate Igor Larionov, a superb passing center, Lapointe looked for more opportunities to score, increasing his shots and drives to the net. Detroit general manager Ken Holland, who says his team will make a big effort to re-sign Lapointe, acknowledged last month, "He's in the driver's seat. He's had a great season."
"Players don't like to change cities," says Lupien of the possibility that Lapointe may re-sign with Detroit, the only NHL team for which he has played. "Martin likes Detroit."
Were he to leave the Red Wings, whose $54.1 million payroll is second to the Rangers' $55.5 million, Lapointe told SI that the Canadiens, his hometown team, would be an obvious choice. (An arena in Ville St. Pierre, a small Montreal suburb in which he was raised, is named for him.) Lapointe also listed the Avalanche, Blues, Coyotes, Flyers, Rangers and Stars as teams that he might be interested in signing with. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime option I have," he says. "I'm very lucky."
The club that signs him will be as well.
Stanley Cup MVPs
Canadian Conn Men
Reports of the death of Canadian hockey have been only slightly exaggerated. Just two of the top 13 goal scorers in the NHL this season were born in the Great White North, and for several years Canada has been a nonfactor in international play, most recently failing to win a medal at last months world championships. Yet Canada retains a stranglehold on the most valued individual hardware in the game: the Conn Smythe Trophy for playoff MVP. "I'd rather win that than the Hart Trophy because, if you win the Conn Smythe, that probably means your team won the Cup," says Devils defenseman Scott Niedermayer.
When Niedermayer's teammate Scott Stevens won the Conn Smythe last season, it marked the 35th time in the 36 years the award has been handed out that it has gone to a Canadian. No European has won the Conn Smythe—the lone non-Canadian winner was U.S.-born Rangers defenseman Brian Leetch in 1994—but this season a few Europeans are in the running, including two Devils, Czechs Patrik Elias and Petr Sykora.