Rent Control

Leasing potential free agents can help win a title, but if those players return to their old teams, it tarnishes the Cup

FORCED TO CHOOSE between dealing their captain, Shane Doan, before the Feb. 27 trade deadline or resigning him, the Coyotes last Thursday gave the potential unrestricted free agent a five-year extension worth $22.75 million. First reaction: a wonderful signing. The contract is a paradigm of commitment and mutual respect between a steadfast rightwinger who has spent his entire career with the franchise and an organization that had shuffled personnel with a Rotisserie fervor the past few years.

Second reaction: what a gaffe. If the Coyotes had been cynical, they could have said something like, "Shane, we really want you, but we're going to trade you now and hope to repatriate you when free agency starts July 1. The team you'd come back to will be even better because of the players we're going to get for you. Win win, eh?" Certainly in that scenario Phoenix would have run the risk of losing Doan, who wouldn't have brought the windfall that the Flyers fetched for trading center Peter Forsberg to the Predators later that day—winger Scottie Upshall, junior defenseman Ryan Parent and first- and third-round draft choices in 2007—but the Coyotes would have landed at least a first-round pick and another useful player. Teams are forbidden by league rules from formally arranging a side deal (one general manager told SI the NHL always checks for such illegal moves before approving trades), but it is tough to police a nod and a wink.

The rental market has not cooled despite the salary cap and a trade deadline that occurs two weeks earlier than it did prior to the 2004--05 lockout. There is a surfeit of buyers and enough sellers to turn Feb. 27 into, as one G.M. calls it, "practically a national holiday in Canada."

Carolina G.M. Jim Rutherford brilliantly worked the market last year, acquiring center Doug Weight in late January from feckless St. Louis and picking up winger Mark Recchi from Pittsburgh at the deadline; both were components of the Hurricanes' Stanley Cup run, and each went back to his former team over the summer. There is no formal or even moral test that any of these deals would flunk—just the smell test. The Stanley Cup is a sterling-silver symbol of all that is good about the NHL. Leasing players for a few months, and seeing them hop back to their old haunts, is unseemly.

Commissioner Gary Bettman could address the issue easily, if not quite painlessly, in conjunction with the league's supposed partnership with the players' association. If a future free agent is ditched at the deadline, then he should be free to sign with any of 29 teams in the summer—every team but his old one. (Forsberg's case might be moot; he resisted Philadelphia's overtures of an extension and might retire this summer if he can't solve a chronic problem with his right skate.) The NHLPA would blanch at this restriction, but a simple rule change would buttress the integrity of the Stanley Cup process. Certainly it would create a sweeter smell of success.

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POLL

30% of the 23 NHL general managers who were polled chose Avalanche center Joe Sakic as the league's best clutch player (excluding goalies)—"a money player," says one G.M. Peter Forsberg tied for second, with 13% of the votes.

Pierre McGuire's In the Crease

One of the most sought-after players on the trading block is 40-year-old Panthers winger Gary Roberts, a Stanley Cup winner and proven leader. Detroit and Ottawa would especially benefit from Roberts's veteran presence. Several of his teammates—left wing Martin Gelinas, center Olli Jokinen and right wing Todd Bertuzzi—could also be dealt before the Feb. 27 deadline.... When healthy, Wild right wing Marian Gaborik is the best one-on-one player in the league. Minnesota is 17-6-3 when Gaborik, who has great acceleration with the puck on his stick, is in the lineup and 15-17-2 when he's not.... Under general manager Doug Wilson, the Sharks are drafting and developing players as well as any organization in the league. One of those young players is 21-year-old Steve Bernier, whom San Jose selected 16th overall in 2003. Bernier, a 6'2", 235-pound forward with smooth hands, scored 14 goals in 39 games last year, and this season he had 11 goals in 39 games before being sent down to Worcester of the American Hockey League to hone his skills. Now the Sharks are being bombarded with trade offers for Bernier. Don't be surprised to see him go if Wilson can obtain a key veteran in exchange.... Give Canucks G.M. David Nonis the nod for best 2006 off-season move in his deal to obtain goalie Roberto Luongo from the Panthers in June. Luongo is a big-time stopper (34 wins through Sunday) who has put Vancouver in playoff contention and also has a shot at the league's MVP award. Another player in the trade who's starting to pay major dividends for the Canucks is 23-year-old defenseman Lukas Krajicek, a mobile, puck-moving blueliner who has made great strides under first-year coach Alain Vigneault.

PHOTOM.J. MASOTTI JR./REUTERSDEADLINE DEALS Doan (white jersey) stayed in Phoenix, but can Forsberg help bring the Cup to Nashville the way Recchi and Weight (inset) did in Carolina? PHOTOJAMES LANG/US PRESSWIRE [Seecaption above] PHOTOELSA/GETTY IMAGES[See caption above]

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