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Jeremy Roenick and Keith Tkachuk have a running gag in the Phoenix Coyotes' dressing room. It started last season, when rumors about their imminent trades were traveling around the league faster than a high school kiss-and-tell.

Roenick and Tkachuk, the Coyotes' highest-paid players and indisputable leaders, needed something to ease the tension. So they started talking behind each other's back just for fun. It was all planned, ready and rehearsed for public consumption.

Sure enough, people started wondering whether they could survive in the same dressing room. All along, Roenick and Tkachuk were giggling behind the scenes. They would get together for a few beers or a round of golf and exchange ideas about how they could stir up a controversy about themselves the next day.

"We have a lot of fun," Tkachuk said. "He's more of a media guy than I am. I just try to stay on the side and do my business on the ice. He's more of the Hollywood type, you know? Tell him. He knows it."

It figures they were laughing again Friday after Roenick scored three goals and Tkachuk had five assists in a 7-3 victory over the Buffalo Sabres. Roenick became the third U.S.-born player to score 400 career goals. He has 402. Tkachuk has four goals and 13 points during an eight-game point streak.

There was a sense Roenick and Tkachuk were trying to enjoy the fun while it lasts. They're intent on extracting every ounce of skill from one another before the March 13 trade deadline, and they had a ball Friday night. Roenick scored in each period, all three coming with help from Tkachuk.

Owner Wayne Gretzky said last week that he wants to build a team around his two stars, but sentiment has one of them -- most likely Tkachuk -- finishing the season elsewhere. You wondered how Gretzky could even consider the possibility after watching their command over the Sabres.

"We're trying to discourage any kind of trade talk that's going on right now," Roenick said. "(Keith) and I love playing with each other tremendously. We'd like to keep it together."

Gretzky the hockey player is in a cage match with Gretzky the businessman, which is appropriate considering how much he contributed to the increase in salaries over the last 20 years. Without hockey, Gretzky wouldn't have the money to become part owner. Without Gretzky, hockey wouldn't be the big business it is today. Now, he must balance his books with lenders telling him to slash payroll.

Gretzky knows how the wheel turns. The Coyotes are in a playoff race, yet they're anticipating $20 million losses in each of the next three seasons. The franchise hasn't reached the second round of the playoffs since 1987, when it was still in Winnipeg. Yet the only way to make money is play deep into the postseason. Good players are required to reach the later rounds. Good players are expensive.

Roenick is certain to become an unrestricted free agent after the season unless Gretzky floors him with an offer. He has waited 13 years for the opportunity to test the open market. J.R. is making $5 million this season, but he knows there are teams out there that will pay him $7 million, $8 million, maybe more.

"Yes, they will," Roenick said.

Tkachuk is in the final year of his contract. He's making $8.3 million this season and will become a restricted free agent in July. He was nearly traded last season amid feuds with previous management. Deals with the Rangers and Hurricanes collapsed at the last minute. Eventually, he melted down under the pressure. He thought Gretzky would cure his problems. But he never left the trading block, and he knows teams are interested.

"You hear rumors about how they have to cut $10 million," Tkachuk said with a laugh. "How convenient. I make $8.3 million."

Gretzky the hockey player wouldn't trade either man given the way they're playing lately. Tkachuk leads the Coyotes with 61 points and Roenick has 60. Their linemate, right winger Shane Doan, has 45. Nobody else on the roster had more than 26. All told, the line combined for five goals and 12 points and 15 of the Coyotes' 31 shots on Friday night.

The Coyotes' success hinges on their top line and goalie Sean Burke, a favorite to win the Vezina Trophy and a candidate for the Hart. He's due to become an unrestricted free agent, making him another candidate for departure. The Coyotes have opened talks with Nikolai Khabibulin, who's younger but more expensive than Burke. The Coyotes would like to sign him, so they can get a good player for Burke before the deadline.

Tkachuk and Roenick couldn't help but laugh over the situation Friday, but the uncertainty has grown tiresome. The scenarios seem countless, their days together uncertain. So they might as well keep yapping.

"Who does he think he is, Adam Oates?" Roenick said. "What did he have, five assists?"

"Ha, ha, ha," Tkachuk said. "I don't know about that."

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