Leasing potential free agents can help win a title, but if those players return to their old teams, it tarnishes the Cup
FORCED TO CHOOSE between dealing their captain, Shane Doan, before the Feb. 27 trade deadline or resigning him, the Coyotes last Thursday gave the potential unrestricted free agent a five-year extension worth $22.75 million. First reaction: a wonderful signing. The contract is a paradigm of commitment and mutual respect between a steadfast rightwinger who has spent his entire career with the franchise and an organization that had shuffled personnel with a Rotisserie fervor the past few years.
Second reaction: what a gaffe. If the Coyotes had been cynical, they could have said something like, "Shane, we really want you, but we're going to trade you now and hope to repatriate you when free agency starts July 1. The team you'd come back to will be even better because of the players we're going to get for you. Win win, eh?" Certainly in that scenario Phoenix would have run the risk of losing Doan, who wouldn't have brought the windfall that the Flyers fetched for trading center Peter Forsberg to the Predators later that day—winger Scottie Upshall, junior defenseman Ryan Parent and first- and third-round draft choices in 2007—but the Coyotes would have landed at least a first-round pick and another useful player. Teams are forbidden by league rules from formally arranging a side deal (one general manager told SI the NHL always checks for such illegal moves before approving trades), but it is tough to police a nod and a wink.
The rental market has not cooled despite the salary cap and a trade deadline that occurs two weeks earlier than it did prior to the 2004--05 lockout. There is a surfeit of buyers and enough sellers to turn Feb. 27 into, as one G.M. calls it, "practically a national holiday in Canada."
Carolina G.M. Jim Rutherford brilliantly worked the market last year, acquiring center Doug Weight in late January from feckless St. Louis and picking up winger Mark Recchi from Pittsburgh at the deadline; both were components of the Hurricanes' Stanley Cup run, and each went back to his former team over the summer. There is no formal or even moral test that any of these deals would flunk—just the smell test. The Stanley Cup is a sterling-silver symbol of all that is good about the NHL. Leasing players for a few months, and seeing them hop back to their old haunts, is unseemly.
Commissioner Gary Bettman could address the issue easily, if not quite painlessly, in conjunction with the league's supposed partnership with the players' association. If a future free agent is ditched at the deadline, then he should be free to sign with any of 29 teams in the summer—every team but his old one. ( Forsberg's case might be moot; he resisted Philadelphia's overtures of an extension and might retire this summer if he can't solve a chronic problem with his right skate.) The NHLPA would blanch at this restriction, but a simple rule change would buttress the integrity of the Stanley Cup process. Certainly it would create a sweeter smell of success.
ONLY AT SI.COM Scott Wraight's Power Rankings every Tuesday.