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Ducks Eye Possibility of Deal for LaFontaine

Hockey: Center is in dispute with Sabres over his return from concussion.

September 21, 1997|ELLIOTT TEAFORD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ANAHEIM — The Mighty Ducks have asked the Buffalo Sabres about the status of center Pat LaFontaine, who has not been invited to Sabre training camp after missing most of last season because of complications from a concussion he suffered last Oct. 17.

With two weeks left to re-sign restricted free agent Paul Kariya before the regular-season opener Oct. 3, the Ducks appear to be concerned enough to gamble that LaFontaine will be fit to play.

However, this is far from a done deal.

LaFontaine must receive medical clearance from the Sabres before a trade can be completed. Doctors disagree on whether LaFontaine should resume his 14-year NHL career. Three Buffalo team doctors said he should not, but two neurologists hired by LaFontaine cleared him two weeks ago.

LaFontaine, 32, has been skating on his own while awaiting team approval to return.

Considered one of the top U.S.-born players in NHL history, LaFontaine has recorded 50 goals and 100 points in a season twice in his career.

If he's fit, he could be the all-star center the Ducks have coveted for their top line. If the Ducks pull off the trade and Kariya is still unsigned, it wouldn't simply be a matter of slipping LaFontaine into his spot on the left wing.

Norwegian rookie Espen Knutsen has been filling Kariya's position on the top line and could remain there. Coach Pierre Page likes the tandem of center Steve Rucchin and right wing Teemu Selanne, but could break them up to make LaFontaine the top line's center.

"They've got to get that [medical clearance] all resolved," Duck General Manager Jack Ferreira said when asked about dealing for LaFontaine.

Money also is an issue.

The Sabres will pay LaFontaine $4.8 million this season and next, but only if he's able to play. If he can't, an insurance company will pay 80% of his salary.

The Ducks would like the Sabres to pick up a sizable portion of LaFontaine's salary before any deal could be agreed upon. If and when they do sign Kariya, it will probably cost the Ducks more than $7 million per season.

Plus, they picked up an additional $1.05 million in salary when they acquired right wing Scott Young from the Colorado Avalanche Wednesday.

Young, who had 21 goals and 60 points two seasons ago, represented the first step toward beefing up the Ducks' depth as a hedge against Kariya's absence.

LaFontaine would be a major second step, but a difficult one to complete.

Buffalo General Manager Darcy Regier has fielded several calls from teams asking about LaFontaine. The Ducks and Chicago Blackhawks are among them.

Competition for LaFontaine's services could be stiff, but concerns over his health remain the biggest hurdle to completing a trade. Or his returning to play for the Sabres.

The five doctors who have examined him spoke on a conference call this week, but failed to reach a consensus on whether he should play.

"The specialists really held their positions and opinions on Pat's situation, so that leaves us in an unchanged situation," Regier told the Associated Press.

"This whole issue is a gray issue. You're dealing with a concussion situation that has only come to the forefront in the last few years. You're dealing with a lot of unknowns, and that's what makes it so difficult."

LaFontaine returned to the lineup after the head injury, but was unable to play at his usual high level. He was sidelined for the rest of the season after a Nov. 7 game against Philadelphia.

Time and rest have helped to the point where LaFontaine believes he's ready to play again.

"Last year, I wasn't cleared to play, but as captain of the team, I was allowed to skate with them, help them on the sidelines," he told the Associated Press. "This year, I'm in the same situation, but I'm not allowed to be a part of it. I find that quite interesting.

"That's a telling statement in my opinion."

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