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Original Issue

Inside The NHL


The only thing wrong with the offer sheet the Hurricanes gave Red
Wings restricted free-agent center Sergei Fedorov last week was
that it ended up threatening the integrity of the game. The NHL
declared the contract invalid because the deal, which guarantees
Fedorov $38 million over six years, called for an additional $12
million lump payment should his team reach the third round of
this year's Stanley Cup playoffs. But arbitrator John Sands
ruled against the league, and the Red Wings matched the offer.

Even with Fedorov, Carolina, which at week's end was 21-30-7 and
in last place in the Northeast Division, would have had little
hope of qualifying for the playoffs, let alone advancing past
the second round. Detroit, however, is a strong candidate to
return to the Western Conference finals.

As a result of this offer and Sands's ruling, a future player
contract could provide an organization financial incentive to
lose. Suppose an offer sheet commands a $20 million bonus should
a player's team win the essentially irrelevant regular-season
title. If a top team matched the offer and retained a player
under those circumstances, who could blame it for intentionally
avoiding a first-place finish? The scenario is grim and
realistic, especially because Mike Modano, the premier center
for the Stars, the top team in the league, is set to be a
restricted free agent after this season.

The decision to match the Hurricane's offer was a no-brainer for
the Wings and deep-pockets owner Mike Ilitch. A team can't
afford to lose a player of Fedorov's caliber, even for the
mandatory compensation of five first-round draft picks, which is
what Detroit would have gotten had it not matched. The
28-year-old Fedorov was the NHL MVP in 1993-94 and was the
league's best defensive forward in 1995-96, when he also scored
107 points. A contract that averages about $6.3 million annually
is, in fact, the going rate for a star of his magnitude. (If
Fedorov doesn't collect the $12 million bonus this spring, he
nevertheless will get it in payments of $3 million over the next
four years.)

That Fedorov has at times feuded with some of the four other
Russians on the Red Wings and isn't beloved in the Detroit
locker room shouldn't disrupt the Wings. Last year Fedorov, who
malingered through some regular-season games, led Detroit in
playoff scoring. "The players know he was a key guy last year
when we won the Cup," says Wings coach Scotty Bowman. "That is
what they care about."

Fedorov was brilliant in his 1997-98 debut, against the Panthers
last Friday. He didn't score, but he played his usual
outstanding defense. He proved he's an impact player--with the
most dangerous contract in the NHL.

G.M. Poll

They're deep. They're balanced. They have the best record in the
NHL (38-13-9 through Sunday). And in the eyes of a majority of
the league's general managers, the Stars are the favorite to win
the Stanley Cup. We asked the 26 G.M.s to forecast a Cup winner
(forbidding them to vote for their own team), and 12 picked the
Stars, five chose the Devils and three selected the defending
champion Red Wings. The Avalanche and Flyers each received a
vote, while four G.M.s abstained. "Size, skill, defense,
offense--Dallas has it all," said one voter.

Goalie Ed Belfour's play under playoff pressure was the only
reservation about Dallas expressed by some of the voters. "I
don't like him when it comes down to the nitty-gritty," said a
G.M. who picked New Jersey. Devils backers raved about netminder
Martin Brodeur.

Though several respondents cited the Red Wings' postseason
success as a virtue, the Stars' relative inexperience in the
playoffs--they were knocked out by the Oilers in the first round
last year--didn't hurt them. Said one voter, "That loss only
will make them more focused."

Another Coach Fired

Sure, coaches are hired to be fired, but in no other major
league are teams as trigger-happy as they are in the NHL. When
Colin Campbell was replaced by John Muckler behind the Rangers'
bench last week, it marked the fourth coaching dismissal since
October and the 14th coaching change since the end of last
season. In the past 10 years an average of 42% of NHL teams have
switched coaches each season, more than in any other league.

"There's a sense of urgency because of the money being thrown
around," says Islanders general manager Mike Milbury, who was
the Isles' coach before being promoted. "The owners can lose
millions, and the coach is an easy guy to blame. With more money
in players' pockets, there's more pressure to get to the
playoffs and have success there."

Because NHL teams get less than $5 million per season in
national TV revenue, they operate with little room for error.
Clubs rely heavily upon gate receipts for income, and a home
playoff date generates several million dollars. In the
expansion-diluted NHL even lowly teams have a chance for the
playoffs, and better clubs battle for home ice advantage. Thus
the difference between red and black ink can be as slim as a few
regular-season points. It's easier to goose a team by bringing
in a new coach than by revamping the roster.

"There's a lot at stake, and some of the changes may come from
general managers' being insecure and using the coach as a
scapegoat," says Capitals first-year general manager George
McPhee. "Personally, I'd like nothing more than to have a coach
in place for years." For Capitals coach Ron Wilson, who was
fired by the Mighty Ducks last spring, those are welcome words.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVID E. KLUTHO OH, SHOOT! After an eight-month salary dispute, Red Wing Sergei Fedorov--here taking dead aim at Panthers goalie John Vanbiesbrouck--played as if he'd never been away (page 98). [Leading Off]

COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO BAD MOVE Contracts like the one Fedorov (far right) signed could tempt teams to tank. [Sergei Fedorov in game]




1997-98 salary: $1.1 million

The third pick in the 1994 draft, Bonk, 22, hasn't scored much
(seven goals through Sunday), hasn't hit much and has often
played as if in a daze.

1997-98 salary: $350,000

The 90th pick in the 1993 draft, Daze, 22, led Chicago with 23
goals at week's end and hasn't been afraid to take a hard bonk
to the body.