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Original Issue

Inside The NHL

Sittin' Pretty
Free-agent-to-be Martin Lapointe is in prime position to cash in
this summer

With unrestricted free agency looming this summer for stars such
as Avalanche center Joe Sakic and defenseman Rob Blake and Devils
wing Alexander Mogilny, the Stanley Cup finals are a timely
audition for the megabuck contracts they'll be seeking. However,
the catch of the unrestricted crop may be right wing Martin
Lapointe of the Red Wings. Less heralded and cheaper to sign than
those two players, Lapointe, who will seek a long-term deal
paying about $4 million per season (probably less than half what
Sakic will get), had career highs of 27 goals and 57 points this
season. More important, he has the grit craved by teams that have
struggled to survive in the postseason crucible.

Unlike most players, who must be at least 31 years old with four
years of NHL experience to qualify for unrestricted free agency,
Lapointe earned that right because he's a 10-year vet who has
never been a free agent and whose salary ($1.25 million) was less
than the league average ($1.5 million). At 27, the 5'11",
200-pound Lapointe is a rare find among unrestricted free agents:
a quality player who has already won two Stanley Cup rings and
whose skills are not likely to decline in the near future. Says
his agent, Gilles Lupien, a former NHL defenseman, "How many
teams can make an offer to a player who is asking for $10
million? But Martin's value to almost any team would be that

Lapointe's booming bodychecks and acerbic chatter have made him
one of the game's most infuriating players to skate against. This
season, on advice from linemate Igor Larionov, a superb passing
center, Lapointe looked for more opportunities to score,
increasing his shots and drives to the net. Detroit general
manager Ken Holland, who says his team will make a big effort to
re-sign Lapointe, acknowledged last month, "He's in the driver's
seat. He's had a great season."

"Players don't like to change cities," says Lupien of the
possibility that Lapointe may re-sign with Detroit, the only NHL
team for which he has played. "Martin likes Detroit."

Were he to leave the Red Wings, whose $54.1 million payroll is
second to the Rangers' $55.5 million, Lapointe told SI that the
Canadiens, his hometown team, would be an obvious choice. (An
arena in Ville St. Pierre, a small Montreal suburb in which he
was raised, is named for him.) Lapointe also listed the
Avalanche, Blues, Coyotes, Flyers, Rangers and Stars as teams
that he might be interested in signing with. "It's a
once-in-a-lifetime option I have," he says. "I'm very lucky."

The club that signs him will be as well.

Stanley Cup MVPs
Canadian Conn Men

Reports of the death of Canadian hockey have been only slightly
exaggerated. Just two of the top 13 goal scorers in the NHL this
season were born in the Great White North, and for several years
Canada has been a nonfactor in international play, most recently
failing to win a medal at last month's world championships. Yet
Canada retains a stranglehold on the most valued individual
hardware in the game: the Conn Smythe Trophy for playoff MVP.
"I'd rather win that than the Hart Trophy because, if you win the
Conn Smythe, that probably means your team won the Cup," says
Devils defenseman Scott Niedermayer.

When Niedermayer's teammate Scott Stevens won the Conn Smythe
last season, it marked the 35th time in the 36 years the award
has been handed out that it has gone to a Canadian. No European
has won the Conn Smythe--the lone non-Canadian winner was
U.S.-born Rangers defenseman Brian Leetch in 1994--but this season
a few Europeans are in the running, including two Devils, Czechs
Patrik Elias and Petr Sykora.

The Conn Smythe is voted on by about 15 members of the
Professional Hockey Writers' Association (PHWA), nearly all of
whom are Canadian- or U.S.-born. "They never mention a European
when they talk about that trophy, so why worry about it?" says

Some observers felt that Red Wings defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom, a
Swede, deserved to win the trophy in 1997 (it went to Detroit
goalie Mike Vernon), and in the '80s Finnish forward Jari Kurri
led the Oilers in playoff goal scoring on four Cup winners.
Otherwise, there have been no bona fide European candidates to
consider. "Remember that it's only been about 10 years that
Europeans have played in the postseason in significant numbers,"
says the New York Daily News's Sherry Ross, a longtime PHWA
member. "There's no bias. It's only a matter of time before a
European wins it." --Kostya Kennedy

Premature Substitution Rule
A Head Scratcher, Even for Coaches

In the second period of Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals
between the Devils and the Penguins last month, Pittsburgh was
carrying the puck when a referee stopped play to cite the
Penguins for a premature substitution. A face-off ensued at
center ice, and when Devils coach Larry Robinson was asked about
the call after the game, he admitted he was confused. "I don't
know what that was," he said. "I guess it was some way not to
give them a penalty for having too many men on the ice."

Robinson isn't the only one flummoxed by the premature
substitution rule, which was introduced before the 1998-99
season and has been called more than half a dozen times this
postseason. Here's a paraphrase of how the infraction is defined
in NHL rule book: Premature substitution occurs when a player
comes onto the ice before a teammate can get off, and both of
the following are true: 1) his team is in possession of the
puck, and 2) he does not get involved in the play. If he comes
on the ice when the opposing team has possession, or when the
puck is free or he gets involved in the play, a penalty is
called for too many men on the ice.

The rule was devised because some general managers felt that
depriving a team of possession was penalty enough. "It's a
little confusing," says NHL director of officiating Andy Van
Hellemond. "It's something we're looking at changing. To be
honest, I don't think we need it." --K.K.

COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO Lapointe, who had a career-high 27 goals for Detroit in 2000-01, will add grit and size to any team.



whom would you Rather Have?

Alex Tanguay
The 12th pick in the 1998 draft, he had a 51-point rookie year in
'99-00. Swift and lithe at 6 feet and 190 pounds, he improved his
numbers this year to 27 goals and 50 assists.

Scott Gomez
The 27th pick in 1998, he was Rookie of the Year with 70 points
in '99-00. Energetic and stocky at 5'11" and 200 pounds, his
numbers slipped this season to 14 goals and 49 assists.

THE VERDICT: Although Gomez needs to become more consistent on
defense, his excellent passing skills and his ability to irritate
the opposition make him the choice over the dynamic Tanguay.