In any other season last Friday's trade of Capitals center Robert Lang to the Red Wings would be ridiculed around the league. Washington received two draft picks (a first-rounder this year and a fourth-rounder in 2006) plus a top minor league prospect, far less than what one of the NHL's top scorers would normally command.
But with the March 9 trade deadline looming, standard logic is skewed by the prospect of a work stoppage before next season. Owners want a salary cap—the major obstacle in negotiations with the players for a new collective bargaining agreement—and as a result many G.M.'s are trying to clear out big contracts while stockpiling prospects.
In that sense Washington G.M. George McPhee swung a smart deal. He got Detroit to take on all of Lang's remaining contract, saving the Capitals $15 million over the next three years. (The wealthy Red Wings have few players signed beyond this season and therefore can afford Lang's longterm deal.) All told, McPhee's fire sale—since last October he's also dealt captain Steve Konowalchuk (to the Avalanche), Jaromir Jagr ( Rangers) and Peter Bondra (Senators)—has slashed $155 million in 2004-05 salary alone.
Because few teams have Detroit's payroll flexibility, straight salary dumps will be rare. But there will be a flurry of activity before the deadline as some clubs gear up for the playoffs and others look to next season with uncertainty.
Here are three players likely to be moved.
Sergei Gonchar, Capitals
Philadelphia G.M. Bobby Clarke speaks for many when he says, "The most valuable players [on the trade market] are good veterans with short-term contracts." Gonchar, 29, a restricted free agent after this season, fits that description and at week's end was the league's top-scoring defenseman (49 points).
Brian Leetch, Rangers
The 36-year-old defenseman is due to make $6.4 million next season, but his experience and power-play expertise make that a reasonable price for a contender.
Jeff O'Neill, Hurricanes
A restricted free agent after this season, the former 40-goal man is having an awful year (33 points), but there is demand for a proven scorer.
Here are three teams who are willing to deal