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BLAKE DEAL STARTS GARAGE SALE

Trade season is officially open. The Colorado Avalanche kicked off the NHL's annual late-winter swap meet Wednesday night, acquiring star defenseman and soon-to-be unrestricted free agent Rob Blake from the Los Angeles Kings.

Colorado got Blake and center Steven Reinprecht in return for winger Adam Deadmarsh, defenseman Aaron Miller, a first-round pick in the 2001 entry draft, a prospect to be named later and unspecified future considerations.

"It's that time of year, so all this fun stuff starts," said Buffalo Sabres winger Doug Gilmour, who came to Buffalo from Chicago in a trade just before the deadline a year ago.

New Jersey's Continental Airlines Arena was abuzz during Thursday's morning skates with talk about the trade, Blake's salary demands (about $10 million a year) and his impending free-agent status. Blake's skill in shutting down opponents, combined with the 17 goals and 32 assists, made him one of the NHL's most sought-after athletes.

"I think it's kind of a surprise," Gilmour said. "You didn't know if (the Avalanche) had a deal on the side as far as a contract, or if he's just going there to play it out. They gave up some pretty good players, too.

"L.A. probably wouldn't sign him, so they figure let's get a first-rounder and let's get Adam Deadmarsh -- a good player -- and move on," said New Jersey's Martin Brodeur. The goalie for the defending Stanley Cup champion Devils went on to call Colorado "the first contender" for the Cup.

"If they're ready to pay a guy that much money," he said, "it means they're ready to make a commitment to win."

Colorado, which already owns the best record in the NHL, now looks like an atom bomb among scud missiles.

Buffalo entered Thursday tied for the NHL's second-fewest goals against, and had played two fewer games and allowed four fewer goals than Colorado. Still, Sabres goalie Dominik Hasek said the addition of Blake vaulted the Avalanche to a level unmatched in the NHL.

"Now they have, for sure, the best defense in the league. They have (Ray) Bourque, (Adam) Foote and now Blake, so there's no more powerful defense in the league than in Colorado."

With Michael Peca's holdout still dragging on in Buffalo, some Sabres have begun to wonder if the time has come to sign the captain or trade him while the trading is good.

"You've got a premier player here in Michael that if you're going to trade him you've got to get quality players for him," Gilmour said. "We need him back or we're going to need a player when we get closer and closer to the playoffs."

Forward Eric Boulton seconded Gilmour's thoughts. "If he was to come back here, he'd help our team; if they were to trade him, that would help our team, too," he said.

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