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Original Issue

Inside The NHL

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Don't expect contenders' elite free-agents-to-be to travel at
the trade deadline

It's usually March's other big dance, but this spring's NHL swap
meet shaped up as more of a junior high sock hop. Instead of
cutting a rug, many teams are expected to stand on the sidelines
and watch Tuesday's trade deadline go by. With the bulk of the
coveted unrestricted-free-agents-to-be playing integral roles on
contending clubs--notably Bruins goalie Byron Dafoe and winger
Bill Guerin, Blackhawks winger Tony Amonte and Sharks winger
Teemu Selanne--and only seven teams more than five points out of a
playoff berth through Sunday, the likelihood of moves involving
high-profile players appears slim.

In fact, general managers seem content to gamble on trying to
re-sign their talent rather than make a deal for prospects and
draft choices. "Other than the Avalanche last season, there
hasn't been a high success rate for teams making big trades at
the deadline," says Flyers general manager Bob Clarke. "Maybe a
team wins a playoff round it wouldn't have won otherwise, but in
our sport it's tough to give up top young players or draft picks
for a player you might only have for a month."

Clarke's words explain the shift this season in conventional
wisdom. Rather than mortgage the future for a veteran who may be
on the move in the summer, clubs now prefer to retain their own
players and hope the financial and emotional leverage generated
by a successful postseason will entice them to re-sign. That's
what Stanley Cup champion Colorado did last summer with
defenseman Rob Blake, goalie Patrick Roy and center Joe Sakic.
Says Red Wings coach Scotty Bowman, "Just because teams keep
players at the deadline doesn't mean they're gone. In a lot of
cases guys want to play where they are now."

Hanging on to potential free agents can cut both ways. Last
season the Devils kept prolific right wing Alexander Mogilny and
hard-nosed defenseman Sean O'Donnell for the playoff push. That
decision worked to the extent that New Jersey made it to the
seventh game of the Stanley Cup finals. Then in July, O'Donnell
agreed to a deal with the Bruins, and Mogilny signed with the
Maple Leafs. This season the Devils have struggled, in part
because of the absence of Mogilny's scoring.

Clubs risk the ire of fans by unloading talent, particularly if,
like this season's Blackhawks and Bruins, the teams haven't been
contenders for several seasons. Now such clubs may stand pat
with their free agents, acknowledging that they're banking on
the short term but being philosophical about it. Says Chicago
general manager Mike Smith about keeping Amonte, "I can see the
risk, and I have no problem with it."

Kasparaitis Conundrum
Will He Be a Free Agent or Not?

Penguins defenseman Darius Kasparaitis was thought to be one of
the unrestricted-free-agents-to-be who would be available in a
late-season trade. But last week Pittsburgh, backed by the NHL,
said the 5'11", 212-pound Kasparaitis, a bruising blueliner with
a league-leading 299 hits through Sunday, doesn't satisfy the
collective bargaining agreement requirement for unrestricted
free agency.

Kasparaitis expected to qualify for free agency after the season
as a 10-year veteran earning less ($1.15 million) than the
league average (about $1.45 million). Complications have arisen
because his $2.4 million contract, which was awarded in
arbitration last August, is a two-year deal, and the Penguins
believe that the length of the contract entitles them to keep
his rights for another season. Kasparaitis's representatives
argue that the collective bargaining agreement permits a player
who would otherwise be eligible for unrestricted free agency to
unilaterally void the second year of a two-year deal awarded in
arbitration. "Twenty Harvard lawyers would all tell you there's
not a word of that paragraph open to interpretation," says
Kasparaitis's agent, Mark Gandler. "Darius is playing for half
his market value. It's embarrassing that the league would be
fooled like this."

The dispute appears headed for mediation in July, when, Gandler
says, Kasparaitis intends to file for free agency.

With a season-ending ailment to center Mario Lemieux and
injuries to top forwards Martin Straka and Robert Lang,
Pittsburgh's playoff hopes have dimmed, and the Penguins are
gambling that they can keep Kasparaitis on the cheap--the second
year of his contract is worth $1.25 million. But they may be
risking a lot by forgoing a trade that would bring them a
sizable package of players and/or draft picks from a contender.

Veterans Francis and Oates
A Pair of Old Faithfuls

Midway through the first period of last Friday's 2-2 tie between
the Capitals and the Hurricanes, Carolina's 39-year-old center,
Ron Francis, crashed the Washington net on a power play and
punched in the game's first goal. A period later Francis's
counterpart, the Capitals' 39-year-old Adam Oates, answered with
a seeing-eye pass to wing Jaromir Jagr in the slot for the
equalizer. Francis would add a third-period goal to win this
match between ageless top-line playmakers, but after a combined
38 seasons in the NHL, both Francis and Oates remain among the
league's elite.

With 11 goals and 54 assists through Sunday, Oates was fourth in
the league in scoring and first in assists, while Francis (23
and 40) was sixth and fourth. They may finish in the top 10 in
the points race together for the first time since the 1994-95
season, and neither plans to retire anytime soon.

In fact, Oates, with 13 assists and 16 points in his last 11
games, and Francis, with seven goals and 12 points in his last
eight, had been their clubs' primary offensive forces. "It's
been fun," says Francis. "There are stretches that no matter
where you're standing, the puck seems to find you, and that's
where I am now."

COLOR PHOTO: DARREN CARROLL Despite the possibility of losing Amonte for nothing this summer, Chicago probably won't deal him.



Whom Would You Rather Have?

Ed Belfour
The 37-year-old was 17-22-7 with an .884 save percentage through
Sunday. Since the Olympic break he'd allowed nine goals in parts
of three games (114 minutes total).

Marty Turco
The 26-year-old was 13-5-0 with a .917 save percentage through
Sunday. Since the Olympic break he'd allowed 10 goals in parts of
six games (312 minutes total).

The Verdict: Belfour won a Stanley Cup with Dallas in 1999, but
what has he done lately? Turco is younger, sharper and our
pick. --D.G.H.