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Bank Shot Kings defenseman Rob Blake, who may be traded in advance of hitting the jackpot as a free agent, could turn a contender into the Stanley Cup favorite

In Toronto, the self-anointed capital of Planet Hockey, a city
where trade rumors fly like snowflakes, citizens were doing Rob
Blake math:

Add 31 (age of Blake, the Los Angeles Kings' franchise defenseman
who, by the combination of his years in the NHL and the fact that
his contract is up at the end of this season, becomes an
unrestricted free agent on July 1)

+1,000,000 (roughly the difference in annual dollars between what
the Kings appear willing to pay him and what Blake seems willing
to accept)

+90 (time, in minutes, it takes to drive from the Blake family
farm in Simcoe, Ont., to downtown Toronto)

+17 (difference in rank between the Kings' No. 2 power play this
season and the Maple Leafs' scuffling unit)

+33 (years since the Maple Leafs last won the Stanley Cup)

+121 (Blake's league-leading total of blocked shots this season).

To Torontonians the solution was obvious: 4 (the number Blake
wears on his sweater).

Rumors swirled that Blake would become a Maple Leaf last week
during the Kings' only trip this season to eastern Canada, but
Blake refused to get sucked into the eddy of general managers'
talk and media wishful thinking. He told reporters on Jan. 17
that he hoped to remain in Los Angeles, and that was that--except
for the few steps he playfully took that day toward the Toronto
locker room as his teammates filed past on the way to their own.
The Kings left the Air Canada Centre later that night with their
full complement of players, two hard-earned points after a
sparkling 2-1 victory (in which Blake nearly scored on a
rink-length rush) and their sense of humor. "Hey, Nelson," Los
Angeles coach Andy Murray called to right wing Nelson Emerson,
Blake's childhood friend, the next day as the Kings prepared to
board a flight to North Carolina. "Make sure your buddy gets on
the plane."

Blake and the Kings are involved in a game of contractual
chicken. He's finishing a three-year, $15 million contract and
wants to stay in Los Angeles. The Kings--who through Sunday were
22-17-7-1 and on the fringe of the playoff picture yet figure to
lose $5 million this season--want to keep him. While neither the
player nor the team will disclose figures, reports put the Kings'
latest offer at $8 million a year and Blake's asking price at $9
million, less than the average of $9.2 million that
market-setting St. Louis Blues defenseman Chris Pronger received
in the three-year contract he signed in October.

The outcome of the negotiations could determine the Kings' future
as well as the fortunes of as many as eight other teams that
think they can win the Stanley Cup this year. If Los Angeles
trades Blake to defense-starved Toronto or another contending
club before the March 13 deadline--letting him leave next summer
for a compensatory draft pick isn't an option for a general
manager who likes his job, as the Kings' Dave Taylor seems
to--that team will have the inside track to a championship. Like
defenseman Raymond Bourque last season, Blake can leverage the
entire league. (Bourque transformed the Colorado Avalanche, which
after acquiring him won 23 of its last 32 games and reached Game
7 of the Western Conference finals before losing to the Dallas

There will be the usual flurry of trades before the deadline,
mostly by general managers who want to plug a hole, but Blake is
the only player whose move in the next seven weeks could shift
the power in the NHL. "He's the best defenseman in the league, by
a lot," says Los Angeles left wing Luc Robitaille, who is also
eligible for unrestricted free agency on July 1. "He hits, he's
our key defensive player, he's our most dangerous player on the
power play, and no other big guy can skate as fast as he can. If
you take him by himself, he's unbelievable. Now put him on one of
the top teams, and his impact is incredible."

Through Sunday, Blake had 16 goals and 45 points for the
high-scoring Kings, a point-per-game pace that would be the most
productive of his 11-year career. Along with Bourque, Pronger and
Al MacInnis of the Blues, Brian Leetch of the New York Rangers
and Nicklas Lidstrom of the Detroit Red Wings, Blake, the
league's leading goal scorer at his position, is one of the
defensemen who towers over hockey, even though he has an
unsightly plus-minus rating (0).

He's also one of eight potential unrestricted free agents among
the top 30 scorers. That number might reflect nothing more than
the unprecedented quality of this year's unrestricteds--try these
guys on your power play: Robitaille, Avalanche center Joe Sakic,
Blues center Pierre Turgeon, New Jersey Devils right wing
Alexander Mogilny, Phoenix Coyotes center Jeremy Roenick, injured
Philadelphia Flyers left wing John LeClair and Washington
Capitals right wing Peter Bondra--but Oliver Stone has made films
based on shakier theories than one that maintains that every
potential unrestricted free agent who has a standout season
excels only because he's on a salary drive.

"I would imagine that some motivation is not there the other
years [of a contract]," Murray says. "Something in the back of
their heads, a little inspiration, seems to kick in. You talk
about stats for baseball players: How often have you seen the
numbers go way up in the free-agent year? Baseball players seem
to turn it up when they need to. I don't think that hockey
players necessarily do that, but if you look at the numbers,
there's certainly some indication of it."

The implacable Blake is as unmoved by that theory as he was by
the rumor mill in Toronto. The one flash point came in September
when, he says, the Kings gave him 12 hours to respond to a
take-it-or-leave-it offer, reportedly $22.5 million for three
years. Blake and his agent, Ron Salcer, needed all of five
minutes to turn it down. In a fit of pique unbecoming an NHL
captain, Blake resigned his position, although within a week he
changed his mind about not wearing the C after realizing he would
be the leader of the Kings with or without a letter on his chest.

Taylor met with Blake and Salcer again last month, and though
Blake said the discussion cleared the air, he added that no
specific contract offer was made. Taylor, however, says, "We have
made a number of offers to Rob, and they've all been rejected."
Meanwhile Los Angeles has heard from several clubs inquiring
about Blake, setting the stage for a perhaps necessary option
that would strip the Kings of an explosive player and call into
question management's commitment to winning. "I don't see how
they can afford not to sign him," says Bill Watters, Toronto's
assistant to the president. "They have a big building to fill,
and he's their key player."

The Kings and Blake have some common ground. It's sand. While
Blake is a farm kid, he has embraced Southern California,
especially the beach culture. He lives in Manhattan Beach with
his wife, Brandy--"You fall out of his bedroom, and you're on the
sand," Emerson says--and has become an accomplished beach
volleyball player. Most hockey players hit 265-yard drives in the
off-season. Blake, a cliched 6'4" California blond, spikes. He's
an A tournament player, which, in hockey terms, he says, "is like
playing one level below the East Coast league."

He's also tied to the area by the Kings' occasional shining
moments, especially the rollicking run to the 1993 finals. In the
championship series against the Montreal Canadiens, the L.A.
Forum shook, and fans queued up outside an airport hotel to gaze
slack-jawed at the Stanley Cup, a rite of spring in cities like
Detroit and Denver but a startling development in preoccupied Los
Angeles. In his perfect world Blake would win a Cup with the
Kings. Pressed last week for a list of four other cities in which
he might like to play, he mentions Toronto and then stops.

"At this stage in my career I have to win something somewhere,"
he says. "We've made strides here, but are we a Stanley Cup team
right now? No. We have holes to fill. I'm only a few months from
free agency, but if I got traded, it would be difficult for me to
make a quick decision on signing a long-term extension as part of
that deal. That makes it tougher on the Kings"--Blake's trade
value would be reduced if the team that obtained him thought it
was merely leasing him for the rest of this season--"but that's
how it is. I would need time to make the right decision."

He made the right decision last Saturday, drifting into the high
slot to one-time a shot on a five-on-three power play, a laser
that touched off a string of four Los Angeles goals in a 6-3
victory over the Carolina Hurricanes, the Kings' third
consecutive road win. Blake had a satisfying afternoon: a goal,
an uncharacteristic but cathartic fight with feisty Bates
Battaglia and a victory. Until his contract situation is
resolved, this is the bottom line.


COLOR PHOTO: LOU CAPOZZOLA With big numbers, Mogilny has gotten a jump on cashing in on free agency.

Money Players
Here are the 10 NHL players SI ranks as being the most likely to
sign megabuck contracts as unrestricted free agents following
this season.

1. D ROB BLAKE, 31, Kings
He is one of only five backliners worthy of being called a
franchise player

2. C JOE SAKIC, 31, Avalanche
An elite scorer with a potent wrist shot and underrated
leadership skills

3. G SEAN BURKE, 34, Coyotes
Thought to be on the scrap heap, he has revamped his style this
season and salvaged his career; will come cheaper than Patrick Roy

4. LW JOHN LeCLAIR, 31, Flyers
Top scoring power forward moves up to No. 2 on our list if his
ailing back is 100%

5. G PATRICK ROY, 35, Avalanche
A proven winner (three Stanley Cups) whose skills have barely

6. D JASON YORK, 30, Senators
Unheralded defensive backliner who can play in almost any team's
top four

7. C PIERRE TURGEON, 31, Blues
Dynamic scorer needs to boost postseason output to guarantee a
monster deal

8. RW MARTIN LAPOINTE, 27, Red Wings
Grinding, physical player is capable of scoring 20 goals per

Classic contract-year performer who can still dazzle with his
offensive skills

10. RW PETER BONDRA, 32, Capitals
Niche free agent: He's a one-way, Western Conference-type sniper

Blake, the leading goal scorer at his position, is one of the
defensemen who towers over hockey.