Rob Blake had a revelation of sorts during festivities Saturday in preparation for today's NHL All-Star Game. The defenseman has been embroiled in a Michael Peca-sized contract dispute with the Los Angeles Kings. He has examined his debate from every angle. And he reached a conclusion.
Are you ready?
It's not about the money.
OK, so he acknowledged that he would sign with the Kings if they caved in to his demands for a five-year deal worth $45 million, effectively giving Blake the average salary handed to St. Louis Blues defenseman Chris Pronger.
And he will not agree to the Kings' proposal for $40 million over five years because he would rather become an unrestricted free agent at season's end, when he can shop himself around the league and receive the contract he thinks he so richly deserves. He's making $5.3 million this season.
"Either way, it works out," Blake said. "The money is obviously going to be there."
Guess what? It's about the money -- it always is -- but there really is a much larger issue in his negotiation with the Kings. The owners should thank Rob Blake for taking his position and effectively serving as an example for a bigger fight when the Collective Bargaining Agreement expires in 2004.
Blake is a poster boy for the current agreement. His leverage comes from his all-star ability and his age, 31, the benchmark for becoming an unrestricted free agent. The talk around the All-Star Game is that owners want a salary cap in the next CBA and the players want the age reduced by at least two years. It goes to the core of the Blake debate. Salaries and free agency.
Owners and the NHL Players' Association have been stocking their financial coffers for years in anticipation of a war come 2004. The owners want to decrease the gap between the rich and poor teams in the league by keeping contracts at a minimum. Only in the last few years have they learned how to use the CBA in their favor, which is why Peca is sitting. The last labor dispute cost the league nearly half the season. Many are bracing for an entire year to be wiped out by labor strife.
It brings us back to Blake, who wants to stay in Los Angeles but is feeling pressure from the NHLPA to hold his position. He feels an obligation to maximize his leverage for the good of the union. The Kings have no choice but to trade him before the March 13 deadline. The Rob Blake Trade Rumor of the Week had him going to Detroit for goalie Chris Osgood.
Others who have shown interest include the Blues, Rangers, Devils, Maple Leafs and Flyers. They all have one thing in common: They are haves in a league growing with have-nots. The Sabres would love to have Blake. But not at $8 million or $9 million. So, like most teams, they make do.
"There's no real deal in sight," Blake said. "If they know they're not going to get it done, the best thing they can do, obviously, is trade me."
And it brings us back to the Kings, who want to keep Blake without going broke. They offered Blake more money over five years than their entire payroll for this season ($35.8 million). They have the 10th-highest payroll in the league and the Blake debate has taken its toll on the Kings. They are in 10th place in the Western Conference.
"I think they know we've put an offer on the table -- that, by the way, my boss (owner Philip Anschutz) didn't like very much and didn't support," Kings president Tim Leiweke said. "I mean, he'll back it because he knows that I made the offer. But quite frankly, I stretched too far. So I'm hanging out there, and I'd say that's a pretty good indication that I have no place to go.
"Do you spend that much money to be the (10th-place) team in the Western Conference? As everyone knows, we have a very strong opinion, and that is we'd love to keep him. But the cost of mediocrity is unacceptable. Just to maintain where we are at today, and take another $5 million hit on our payroll -- which has doubled in the last four years -- we're not going to play that game."
Audette's value on rise
Donald Audette's performance this season has given him enough leverage for a contract extension but, much like Blake, the trick will be completing a deal before the trade deadline.
The Thrashers and Audette have been discussing a deal that would pay the former Sabre less than $3 million per season over the next three years, plus an option for a fourth. If the deal is not completed, Audette, an unrestricted free agent after the season, could be attractive bait for a playoff team.
"Our goal is to get him signed before the deadline because, as an asset who can walk away from the organization, we can't afford to take that risk," Thrashers GM Don Waddell said. "If we're not going to have him, we need to turn him into other assets. That's not a threat or anything. It's just reality."
Audette today will play in his first All-Star Game in his 11-year career. He already has 25 goals and is fifth in NHL scoring with 59 points. He never scored more than 31 goals or 59 points in his career. He was seeking a no-trade clause, but it's virtually guaranteed the Thrashers won't include one.
I cannot tell a lie
Sandis Ozolinsh's mediocrity already is wearing thin in Carolina, and the Hurricanes would like to unload his five-year, $25.5 million contract. A handful of teams already have called.
Ozolinsh, who had at least 50 points in four of his last five seasons, has been brutal along the blue line this season. He has four goals, 22 points and a minus-18 rating. Sure enough, he was chosen for the All-Star Game.
"I don't think I really deserved to be on the All-Star team this year," Ozolinsh said. "My fans and whoever voted were considering what I've done before, not what I've done so far this season."
At least he's honest.
Vernon takes pay cut
Trade rumors involving goalie Mike Vernon were become so persistent in Calgary that rookie GM Craig Button announced a contract extension before the ink was dry. Vernon signed for one more season at $2.75 million (U.S.), or about $500,000 less than he's making this season.
"We wanted everybody to know we value Mike, that we think he's capable of helping us win," Button said. "Our intention is to move forward with Mike, not move him out."
The Flames aren't going anywhere with Vernon, who had a 10-17-3 record with a 3.13 goals-against average and .886 save percentage going into the break.
Button wants to keep the door open should a contending team desperate for goaltending -- Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, Vancouver -- come knocking with prospects.
Panthers ready to deal
Every time goalie Garth Snow insists that he can lead the Penguins through the playoffs, talk heats up about Pittsburgh acquiring somebody else in a trade.
Pittsburgh, ranked in the bottom third in goals-against average, was among several teams that sent scouts to the National Car Rental Center. Presumably, they had their eye on Panthers goalie Trevor Kidd, who is now in a backup role behind Roberto Luongo and is a prime candidate for departure.
LeClair's piece of the rock
John LeClair need not worry about his financial future as he makes a full recovery from a serious staph infection.
The Flyers winger is covered by a rare loss of value policy in which his insurance would pay the difference if LeClair signs for less than $7 million next season. Apparently, he paid a high premium for it.
LeClair is likely out for the regular season while he recovers from the infection, which developed in his back. It's common for players to insure themselves but usually only for career-ending injuries, not loss of value. He is set to become an unrestricted free agent after turning down an offer that would have paid him more than $8 million a season.
Penalty box with bars
It's one thing to take a stupid penalty, but Penguins goon Billy Tibbetts could wind up taking a stupid prison term after he delivered a cheap shot last weekend.
The Pennsylvania parole board was investigating whether Tibbetts violated terms of his prison release when he decked Atlanta's Darcy Hordichuk as the Thrasher stood along the bench. Parole officials will meet with Tibbetts, suspended for four games by the NHL, and review tape of the incident.
He spent 3 1/2 years in the slammer after being convicted of assault with a deadly weapon in Massachusetts and, therefore, violating probation stemming from a statutory-rape conviction when he was 17. His parole was transferred from Massachusetts to Pennsylvania after he was signed. Why the Pens wanted him is a mystery.
Coyotes goalie Sean Burke on whether he could leave the All-Star Game with the Most Valuable Player award: "It could happen, I guess, but I think the last thing a goalie thinks going (into the game) is the MVP. He's thinking survival. You're not trying to win a new car, you're just hoping you're still able to get into your own car."
Around the boards
The domestic violence case against Avs goalie Patrick Roy, arrested after breaking two doors in his house during an argument with his wife, was dismissed. . . . Edmonton GM Kevin Lowe and Calgary GM Craig Button have been talking trades. No big deal? The Oilers and the Flames haven't stuck a deal since 1980, when the two Alberta teams agreed to not swap players. . . . Alexandre Daigle, missing in action in the NHL this season, has turned up in Southern California. He's playing with Priority Records in a beer league and, presumably, he's still underachieving. . . . Islanders defenseman Kevin Haller, the Sabres' No. 1 pick 1989, is out for the season with a hernia that will require surgery. . . . Blackhawks winger Steve Sullivan is quietly having a great season. He has already matched his career high with 22 goals, including a league-leading six short-handed. . . . Kings defenseman Mathieu Schneider needs 40 points this season for a $500,000 bonus. He went into the break with 37. He hasn't had 40 points in one season since 1995-96. . . . Don't blame the Red Wings' Brendan Shanahan for not throwing a party after playing in his 1,000th game. Five other players on his own team -- Larry Murphy, Chris Chelios, Steve Duchesne, Pat Verbeek and Steve Yzerman -- have accomplished the feat. . . . Isles GM Mike Milbury said he was so impressed with Rick DiPietro's debut against the Sabres last weekend that he has decided the goalie will finish the season in the NHL. It should open the door for John Vanbiesbrouck's departure, possibly to Los Angeles.
Jeff O'Neill. The Hurricanes' forward has already surpassed his career high with 26 goals. He had a baker's dozen in January alone and 20 in 24 games since Dec. 9, keeping Carolina in the race.
John Tortorella. Forget the 10 straight losses. The Lightning coach and John Muckler's former right-hand man won two straight going into the All-Star break, giving him three days of peace.
Phil Christ. Michael Peca's practice goalie need not worry about getting beat on a two-on-one now that Grant Ledyard signed with Tampa Bay, leaving Captain Crunch in a breakaway mode.
Dallas Stars. These guys seemed to be gasping for air and grasping for answers after getting smoked, 8-0, by the Los Angeles Kings. The only thing worse than getting buried that badly is enduring the wrath of coach Ken Hitchcock for weeks afterward.
Ed Belfour. He stayed in the net for all eight goals against the Kings. He made the best pass all night when he found Luc Robitaille for a gimme. Someone tell Crazy Eddie that Robitaille plays for the Kings.
Wayne Primeau. He complained about ice time in Buffalo and was a bust in Tampa Bay. If he thought playing eight minutes with the Sabres was bad, wait until he feels what four minutes is like with the Penguins. Primo bencho.