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ANALYSIS : Trading LaFontaine Will Be No Easy Task for the Islanders

February 24, 1991|JIM SMITH | NEWSDAY

Besides Grant Fuhr's comeback, the biggest story in the NHL this week is the aftermath of Pat LaFontaine's decision to ask for a trade. Will New York Islanders General Manager Bill Torrey grant his request? If so, when will he deal him and to whom?

After interviews with player agents and NHL officials, this conclusion is inescapable: LaFontaine will be tough to trade because of his asking price ($5 million over four years) and most teams' reluctance to part with players of equal value. These three things are certain:

1) If Torrey does deal LaFontaine, it will not be before the March 5 league deadline. It probably will happen a few days before the June 22 entry draft in Buffalo. "That's when your biggest deals normally are made," Hartford Whalers President Emile Francis said.

Agent Lew Oppenheim said, "If Torrey makes a deal before the deadline, it looks too much like an admission of defeat. LaFontaine's taken away his leverage. I think Torrey's going to rehabilitate his value by making it look like he's going to move him and wait until the draft."

Once teams' draft positions are known, Torrey will know what he is getting in any deal involving first-round picks.

2) Before any deal, Torrey must re-sign LaFontaine or LaFontaine and his agent, Don Meehan, must approve a contract with another club. "You'd have to have a deal in place," Francis said. "Otherwise, how do you know you're going to be able to sign him?" Meehan said of such an arrangement, "I don't see that as a problem."

Meehan said Torrey "did not answer" when the agent asked him if he would make an offer similar to the $5-million, four-year deal Montreal gave center Denis Savard. Torrey says Meehan rejected a five-year, $6-million deal. Meehan said that offer included deferred money and, "I'm not prepared to negotiate in terms of deferred money."

3) For Torrey to trade LaFontaine, he must obtain a player or players who will put fans in Nassau Coliseum seats and be as involved in the Long Island community as LaFontaine. We're talking about Detroit's Steve Yzerman, Edmonton's Mark Messier, a Kings' package like Steve Duchesne-Luc Robitaille or the rights to projected No. 1 draft pick Eric Lindros, who likely will go to Quebec.

"If (LaFontaine's) going to be moved," said Lindros' agent, Rick Curran, "the Islanders are going to have to get the type player who would make people forget what Pat's contributed to the organization."

Is there a chance of Torrey and LaFontaine coming to terms? A Patrick Division GM who asked for anonymity thinks so. "I think they'll end up reconciling," he said. "This guy is their team. He's too much an Islander. It's too hard for me to swallow that he'll be traded."

But LaFontaine and Meehan have shown up Torrey publicly. In Torrey's 19 years as general manager, the only player who did that before was John Tonelli in 1985. Torrey traded him.

"He wants soldiers, hard workers," an agent who asked for anonymity said of Torrey. "He doesn't like publicity. That's the way they won four Stanley Cups (1980-83): 'Everybody's a soldier; nobody's better than anybody else.' It's an ego thing. What aggravates him most is that (LaFontaine and Meehan) brought this thing to the press."

The NHL marketplace was jolted last summer by the Blues' signings of free-agent Scott Stevens (four years, $5.1 million) and Brett Hull (four years, $7 million). In rapid succession, most teams signed their stars to new multimillion dollar contracts.

The two teams most-mentioned in LaFontaine trade rumors are St. Louis (he was born there) and Detroit (he was raised there). But the Blues and Red Wings are not likely to give up a marquee player for him.

What sense would it make for Detroit to trade, say, Yzerman and Gerard Gallant for LaFontaine and David Volek? It would be a wash; neither team would be improved. And if Torrey is reluctant to pay LaFontaine $1.25 million, why would he want Yzerman, whose contract averages more than $1.7 million?

The Blues would not give up Hull, and they don't have first-round picks in the next few years. They owe at least two and possibly five to Washington for signing Stevens.

Other teams might not show much interest in LaFontaine. Chicago would not tear up its team for LaFontaine; the Blackhawks think they can win the Cup with what they have.

Quebec? LaFontaine got 104 goals and 234 points for Verdun of the QMJHL in 1982-83, and Nordiques GM Pierre Page says he is willing to listen to offers for his first-round pick. But Quebec is one of the NHL's smallest markets, has one of its lowest payrolls and is, according to the salary survey, paying superstar center Joe Sakic only $290,000. Would Page pay LaFontaine four times that amount?

"I don't think Quebec would be interested in paying that type money," said Flames President-GM Cliff Fletcher. "I know one thing: the Flames couldn't afford to pay LaFontaine the type money he is asking for."

Torrey will not trade within the Patrick Division. Teams like Vancouver, Winnipeg, Minnesota, Hartford and Toronto have nobody to offer of equal value. The freewheeling LaFontaine does not fit the Bruins' lunch-pail style. That leaves Edmonton, Montreal and Los Angeles.

It is hard to believe Torrey would deal with Oilers President-GM Glen Sather, possibly allowing Sather to extend his dynasty. Would the Canadiens part with, say, Shayne Corson, Mathieu Schneider and draft picks? Maybe.

The Kings, run by Torrey's friend GM Rogie Vachon, also are a possibility. But if Vachon traded left wing Robitaille and defenseman Duchesne, the Kings might not have enough offense left to contend for the Cup.

Would Torrey give LaFontaine up for draft picks alone? If he did, it would be a public-relations nightmare. Without compensation for LaFontaine the Isles would be looking at a 20-50-10 season next year and an average attendance of less than 10,000.

Your move, Bill.

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