Wednesday February 13th, 2008

Back in 2005, getting a no-trade clause was a key element in Cory Stillman's decision to sign a three-year deal with the Carolina Hurricanes. The security of knowing he would be in one place for the duration held considerable appeal for the veteran.

Still, it didn't take Stillman long to waive it Tuesday morning when Canes GM Jim Rutherford asked if he'd be willing to go to Ottawa.

"To be on a team that's gunning for the Cup is fantastic," Stillman said afterwards. "I think you'd be dumb not to come to a team like this."

That was the bottom line for the 34-year-old veteran. Finish the season clawing for a playoff spot with the fourth team of his 13-year NHL career or pass Go and move directly to the favorites to represent the Eastern Conference in the Stanley Cup Final. Even with a pair of Cup rings to pass down to his kids, the chance for a third was irresistible.

And that's the thing with NTCs. They don't mean no trade as much as they grant a player some say in his fate. And that's why fans shouldn't assume that players who have them -- Toronto's Mats Sundin, for example -- can't be dealt over the next two weeks.

Nor do they mean that a player has to waive it willingly. For everyone like Stillman, who values a chance to compete for the Cup above all else, there are those who have more pressing concerns. Doug Weight, for one. The veteran center, a teammate of Stillman's on the Cup-winning 2006 Hurricanes, went kicking and screaming from the St. Louis Blues to the Anaheim Ducks in mid-December, despite holding an NTC.

A chance to join the defending champs -- and a team with a real chance to repeat -- seems like it should be an easy sell, especially to a player who may be taking his last kick at the can. But Weight, and more importantly his family, were very happy playing out the string in St. Louis, a city where they'd established deep ties. After taking one for the team when he was dealt to Carolina at the deadline back in 2006, Weight was more interested in being part of the rebuilding effort, rather than an agent of its expedition. He vetoed the request to waive his NTC.

Of course, we know how far that got him.

There have been whispers out of St. Louis that Weight was approached a second time and given the classic Hobson's choice: Rip up the no-trade clause and accept a move to Anaheim, or prepare to see his ice time whittled down below the nation's savings rate. Not much an athlete can do at that point. It's one thing to stand by your principles. It's another to stick around where you're not wanted.

Weight's mistake may have been keeping the first request private. In Ottawa last week, news quickly spread when GM Bryan Murray informed veteran defender and pending UFA Wade Redden that there was "outside interest" in his services. Redden said no thanks to that interest, thought to be from the Sharks, and began a PR campaign aimed at keeping himself in place for the rest of the season.

Murray, of course, didn't have the leverage to threaten Redden that the Blues had with Weight. With so much riding on a Cup challenge this season, he couldn't afford to upset the applecart...and that's exactly what would have happened if Murray tried to push the popular Redden out of the dressing room.

The situation's entirely different in Toronto with Sundin. The Leafs are going nowhere this year, or any time soon. It would seem like the Cup-less Swede, in the midst of his best season in a decade, should relish the chance to compete somewhere -- anywhere -- this postseason. But he's dug his heels in since being asked by interim GM Cliff Fletcher to waive his NTC, saying Toronto's the only place he wants to play.

That decision seems counterintuitive on the part of a player who hopes to re-sign with the Leafs this summer. There are no guarantees the players or prospects or picks or combination of the three that the team would get in a deal for him would make the Leafs more competitive in short order, but it's fair to say they'll keep treading deep water if they're forced to play with essentially the same roster next season. Comfortable in the city or not, that can't be an appealing option for the 37-year-old.

Sundin's too popular, with the fans and his teammates, to get the Weight treatment. But that doesn't mean Fletcher can't let him know that the Leafs will be moving forward with players who put the team first in 2008-09, and let him read between the lines.

There are other NTC-holding veterans who could change their sweaters by Feb. 26, including Tomas Kaberle, Rob Blake and Slava Kozlov. But in each case, there are few, if any, situations other than their current one that will be to their liking.

Of course, if their teams decide to play hardball, their current situations may not remain to their liking for long.

Interesting side note to that Sens/Canes deal: Not only was it intra-conference, but it was between two teams that conceivably could meet up in the first round of the playoffs, proving that in a difficult trade market, you can't rule out anyone as a partner if the deal improves your team . . .

Expect Evgeni Malkin's name to be added to the mix the next time you hear possible Hart Trophy candidates discussed. An unlikely winner, to be sure, but his play since Sidney Crosby went down on Jan. 18 has proved that Malkin is more than just the Kid's second banana. With 21 points in 10 games since assuming the alpha dog role, Malkin's carried a team that's in a dogfight for the Atlantic title. Maybe more important, he's finally got the enigmatic Ryan Malone's game in gear . . .

The talk of making neck guards mandatory in the wake of Richard Zednik's gruesome injury is nice and all, but it'll die down quickly. If the players are put out by half shields for their faces, these cumbersome, uncomfortable pieces of neck protection don't stand a chance. . .

Interesting rumor out of Dallas has the Stars sending veteran Jeff Halpern to Montreal. He'd certainly fill a need with his grit and checking ability, but if the Habs are looking for shutdown faceoff center, buyer beware. There may be no player in the league who gets tossed out of the circle more often than Halpern. The problem? His timing is brutal .. .

It's not the fact that they have four games in hand on division-leading Dallas, or five on second-place Anaheim, that suggests the third-place Sharks are still the favorites to capture the Pacific Division, it's that they play 16 of their final 26 games on the road. San Jose's been the league's most inhospitable visitor this season, piling up a 17-5-3 mark. The Sharks start a season-long eight-game road trip, including a swim through the entire Atlantic Division, on Sunday....

The deal signed yesterday between Henrik Lundqvist and the Rangers, rumored to be six years at $39 million, is a fair one for both sides. With a young but proven No. 1 in place, you have to believe the Rangers may finally part ways with top prospect Al Montoya. The sixth overall pick of the 2004 draft, Montoya's been the Rangers ace in the hole. But he's struggled this season with Hartford of the AHL, where he's been outplayed by Finnish rookie Miika Wikman. If the Blueshirts make a deal before the deadline -- to acquire Rob Blake, perhaps? -- it wouldn't be a surprise to see Montoya, an RFA this summer, sent packing. Wikman, it's worth pointing out, is with Hartford on an AHL contract and can be signed by anyone after the season is over. It's believed that he'll sign an NHL deal with the Rangers at that point, but someone could swoop in with a better offer if he continues his strong play.

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