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Middlemen Left Out of NHL Trades

Commentary: Number of deals involving teams wanting to trim payrolls exposes disparity between league's haves and have-nots.

March 12, 2003|Helene Elliott | Times Staff Writer

The Toronto Maple Leafs went for broke. The Pittsburgh Penguins and Edmonton Oilers hope to avoid going broke.

Tuesday's NHL trading deadline produced records for trades, 24, and players moved, 46, -- and left a deepening rift between the league's haves and have-nots.

The Maple Leafs, a cash machine in the self-proclaimed capital of the hockey universe, added Doug Gilmour from Montreal and Phil Housley from Chicago for middle-round draft picks. The New York Rangers, spending $80 million to miss the playoffs, dealt underachiever Radek Dvorak and warm body Cory Cross for forward Anson Carter and defenseman Ales Pisa, relieving Edmonton of Carter's $4.2-million salary and raises warranted by his team-leading 25 goals and 55 points.

The Oilers, fighting to hold a West playoff spot, also parted with defenseman Janne Niinimaa, who averaged more than 26 minutes a game but will earn $2.9 million this year and next. He went to the New York Islanders for about $1.1 million less in payroll, in the forms of Brad Isbister and prospect Raffi Torres.

Said Ranger-bound Carter: "It's a good move for me."

But not for Canadian teams and their small-market brethren.

While Edmonton pared its $39-million payroll, the defending Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings pushed theirs past $70 million, astutely picking up defenseman Mathieu Schneider from the white-flag-waving Kings. Schneider is ideal for Detroit's high-tempo puck-control game, and he cost merely two spare parts and two draft picks.

Meanwhile, the Penguins, mired in financial trouble again, nearly emptied their shelves by sending Ian Moran to Boston, Marc Bergevin to Tampa Bay, and Jan Hrdina and Francois Leroux to Phoenix for youngsters and draft picks.

The rich got richer. The poor got draft picks.

And the collective bargaining agreement has 18 months left.

From a playoff standpoint, Tuesday's big winners were the Maple Leafs, Red Wings, Islanders, and Mighty Ducks.

Toronto's aging roster dictated a go-for-it-now approach, and General Manager-Coach Pat Quinn did well to grab Owen Nolan on Saturday before adding Gilmour and Housley, both 39 and among the few active players born when the Leafs last won the Stanley Cup in 1967. The future can wait when the team is that good and its Cup drought is that long. Quinn's successors will pay for his surrender of youngsters and draft picks, but his moves make sense for his situation.

A member of the 1993 Toronto team that lost a seven-game conference final series to the Kings, Gilmour was ecstatic about his return.

"It's a dream come true again," the 20-season veteran said. He also said he'd discouraged a trade to Dallas because "it was all about coming in and playing now, but when they got their [injured] players back, I didn't even know I was going to be in the lineup."

Schneider, who will earn $3.75 million next season, immediately became Detroit's second-best defenseman, behind Nicklas Lidstrom. He's also insurance against the disintegration of Chris Chelios' knees while Jiri Fischer recovers from knee surgery.

Kudos to General Manager Ken Holland for maintaining a superb talent level while producing players like beefy defenseman Maxim Kuznetsov and feisty forward Sean Avery, who have trade value as role players.

The Islanders, clinging to an East playoff spot, improved their balance and speed on defense by grabbing Niinimaa for Isbister, a can't-miss prospect who hasn't hit yet. They also won by getting Justin Papineau and a second-round draft pick from St. Louis for goalie Chris Osgood, whom they weren't going to keep because of the emergence of Rick DiPietro and the resurgence of Garth Snow. Whether the Blues win is debatable. Osgood is better than Brent Johnson, but not by much.

Duck General Manager Bryan Murray got depth and experience at minimal cost, taking on $3 million in salary to acquire Steve Thomas from Chicago for a fifth-round pick and Rob Niedermayer from Calgary for Mike Commodore and J.F. Damphousse, who couldn't crack the Ducks' lineup. When was the last time anyone could say, while not wearing mouse ears, that the Ducks are well-run?

Murray, incidentally, called his San Jose counterpart, Dean Lombardi, to ask about Teemu Selanne, but Selanne didn't want to waive his no-trade clause.

Too bad. But even without him, the Ducks will bear watching.

Tuesday's biggest loser was Edmonton, obliged to hope the teams behind the Oilers can't mount late playoff pushes and that the Canadian dollar will grow stronger and increase their spending power.

The Penguins conceded the season when they traded Alexei Kovalev to the Rangers last month, and their giveaway of so much viable talent raises the specter of whether player-owner Mario Lemieux can save the franchise again.

Then there's Philadelphia General Manager Bob Clarke, who guaranteed himself domestic tranquillity, if not the Cup, by acquiring Peter White from Chicago. White is married to Clarke's daughter Jody. Some trades are win-win.

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Tuesday's Moves

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