Don't expect contenders' elite free-agents-to-be to travel at the trade deadline
It's usually March's other big dance, but this spring's NHL swap meet shaped up as more of a junior high sock hop. Instead of cutting a rug, many teams are expected to stand on the sidelines and watch Tuesday's trade deadline go by. With the bulk of the coveted unrestricted-free-agents-to-be playing integral roles on contending clubs—notably Bruins goalie Byron Dafoe and winger Bill Guerin, Blackhawks winger Tony Amonte and Sharks winger Teemu Selanne—and only seven teams more than five points out of a playoff berth through Sunday, the likelihood of moves involving high-profile players appears slim.
In fact, general managers seem content to gamble on trying to re-sign their talent rather than make a deal for prospects and draft choices. "Other than the Avalanche last season, there hasn't been a high success rate for teams making big trades at the deadline," says Flyers general manager Bob Clarke. "Maybe a team wins a playoff round it wouldn't have won otherwise, but in our sport it's tough to give up top young players or draft picks for a player you might only have for a month."
Clarke's words explain the shift this season in conventional wisdom. Rather than mortgage the future for a veteran who may be on the move in the summer, clubs now prefer to retain their own players and hope the financial and emotional leverage generated by a successful postseason will entice them to re-sign. That's what Stanley Cup champion Colorado did last summer with defenseman Rob Blake, goalie Patrick Roy and center Joe Sakic. Says Red Wings coach Scotty Bowman, "Just because teams keep players at the deadline doesn't mean they're gone. In a lot of cases guys want to play where they are now."
Hanging on to potential free agents can cut both ways. Last season the Devils kept prolific right wing Alexander Mogilny and hard-nosed defenseman Sean O'Donnell for the playoff push. That decision worked to the extent that New Jersey made it to the seventh game of the Stanley Cup finals. Then in July, O'Donnell agreed to a deal with the Bruins, and Mogilny signed with the Maple Leafs. This season the Devils have struggled, in part because of the absence of Mogilny's scoring.
Clubs risk the ire of fans by unloading talent, particularly if, like this season's Blackhawks and Bruins, the teams haven't been contenders for several seasons. Now such clubs may stand pat with their free agents, acknowledging that they're banking on the short term but being philosophical about it. Says Chicago general manager Mike Smith about keeping Amonte, "I can see the risk, and I have no problem with it."
Will He Be a Free Agent or Not?
Penguins defenseman Darius Kasparaitis was thought to be one of the unrestricted-free-agents-to-be who would be available in a late-season trade. But last week Pittsburgh, backed by the NHL, said the 5'11", 212-pound Kasparaitis, a bruising blueliner with a league-leading 299 hits through Sunday, doesn't satisfy the collective bargaining agreement requirement for unrestricted free agency.
Kasparaitis expected to qualify for free agency after the season as a 10-year veteran earning less ($1.15 million) than the league average (about $1.45 million). Complications have arisen because his $2.4 million contract, which was awarded in arbitration last August, is a two-year deal, and the Penguins believe that the length of the contract entitles them to keep his rights for another season. Kasparaitis's representatives argue that the collective bargaining agreement permits a player who would otherwise be eligible for unrestricted free agency to unilaterally void me second year of a two-year deal awarded in arbitration. "Twenty Harvard lawyers would all tell you there's not a word of that paragraph open to interpretation," says Kasparaitis's agent, Mark Gandler. "Darius is playing for half his market value. It's embarrassing that the league would be fooled like this."
The dispute appears headed for mediation in July, when, Gandler says, Kasparaitis intends to file for free agency.