Thursday, February 22, 2007
Updated: February 23, 12:36 PM ET
Good 'rental'? NHL needs to toss this conflict of interest
By Terry Frei
Special to ESPN.com
Blues center Doug Weight is a nice fellow who has made a lot of friends in his long career, and the least the NHL can do to reward him is to someday name a rule after him.
The Doug Weight Rule.
And that rule would be: If you're traded during the calendar year when your contract is expiring and you could become an unrestricted free agent on July 1, there is one restriction on unrestricted free agency. You can't re-sign with the team that traded you.
Nobody was irate over what happened with Weight last season. But since the NHL has moved up the trading deadline to earlier in the season under the terms of the post-lockout collective bargaining agreement, there isn't much else to complain about this time of year, and Weight's case seems to at least point out a continuing and potentially abused flaw in the system.
"Rental" can be a pejorative when a winking understanding exists in which the playoff-bound team (Team A) is literally borrowing a player from a franchise (Team B) destined to miss the playoffs -- and the player prefers to, plans to or even informally has promised to re-sign with Team B after July 1.
The playoff team gets his services short-term while understanding he can't or won't fit into its long-term plans. Hey, that's an old story, especially in the era when the trading deadline fell about 17 minutes before the end of the regular season. Get a faceoff guy for the playoffs. Add a veteran defenseman. Whatever. But this could get worse, and long before the current CBA is scheduled to expire after the 2010-11 season.
The Weight precedent: On Jan. 30 of last season, when the Blues were already, realistically, out of the playoff race and the Laurie ownership was still stripping down the team to save money and sell it, St. Louis sent Weight to the Hurricanes in a multiple-player deal.
He was a significant role player in the Hurricanes' run to the Stanley Cup, getting three goals and 13 assists in 23 postseason games. But he re-signed with the Blues as an unrestricted free agent on July 2. He's making $3.5 million this season and in 2007-08, which will take him to age 37.
Especially because of St. Louis' ownership transition, this certainly wasn't a prearranged scenario. Although negotiations had been prolonged, Dave Checketts wasn't introduced as the head of the ownership group-in-waiting until late March. While the possibility of Weight's returning was always far from outlandish, it at least wasn't planned, or put in motion, in January.
So what happened with Weight isn't as significant as the model it represents. And the important thing to keep in mind is an old journalism credo that is often ignored, but at least remains the standard: It's just as important to avoid an appearance of a conflict of interest as it is to avoid a conflict of interest itself.
|After being traded to Carolina last season, Doug Weight won a Cup. Now, he's back with the Blues.|
The trading deadline is Tuesday, Feb. 27. Yes, it's earlier than in 2004, but by next week, the eight Western Conference playoff teams could be all but decided. Yeah, yeah, we'll hear all that stuff about how anything can happen and surges or collapses can change the picture, but you have to take all of that one cliché at a time and let it go in one ear and out the other. In the East, perhaps only Philadelphia, Washington and Florida will be out of the running, but it could be more than that.
So here are a couple of theoretical examples. Theoretical, OK?
Colorado almost certainly isn't going to make the playoffs. How's this for a mutually beneficial scenario? Colorado and Dallas don't play each other again this season. Avalanche coach Joel Quenneville and Stars coach Dave Tippett are close friends and former Hartford Whalers teammates. (Cue up "Brass Bonanza.") Avalanche general manager Francois Giguere returned to Colorado last summer after serving as GM Doug Armstrong's assistant in Dallas. Avalanche/Nuggets owner Stan Kroenke and Stars/Rangers owner Tom Hicks both are also getting involved with English soccer. (Hicks and Canadiens owner George Gillett Jr. are buying the Liverpool Beatles, or whatever they're called.)
The degrees of separation are nowhere near six. And Joe Sakic's contract is up.
Did I say this is only theoretical? THIS IS ONLY THEORETICAL! Please don't throw this dart at the board, Canadian tabloid speculators.
How about if Dallas sends a draft choice, an Iowa Stars prospect and a current player to Colorado for Sakic? It's a favor, but it passes muster as a legitimate deal because it can help both teams. Now, this requires playing along, because the Stars are up against the cap and it would take considerable maneuvering to be able to add Sakic (putting Eric Lindros and his aching lower body on injured reserve would be only a start).
But let's say there would be a way to pull it off. Sakic's wife and children remain in Denver, he bolsters the physically suspect Stars in the playoffs for as long as that lasts, all with the understanding that he will most likely, or even certainly, re-sign with Colorado in the offseason.
Maybe there's nothing wrong with that kind of scenario. If an unrestricted free agent gets to July 1, another team could jump in with a far better offer and foul things up, and an informal all-things-equal agreement could go out the window.
But I'm inclined to think there is something wrong with all of that. It cheapens the playoff tournament and opens up the possibilities of, well, inside trading and even cronyism rather than competition. What if an NHL team lands in Kansas City, playing in the arena owned by L.A. Kings owner Phil Anschutz? Think of how bad a deadline deal would look if a King went to Kansas City and helped in the playoffs, only to re-sign with Los Angeles on July 1?
This much is not speculation about Sakic, now that the Avalanche situation is almost the opposite as before: His current desire for one-year contracts has more to do with a year-to-year evaluation of how long he wants to play than for keeping the option open of accepting the highest bid. If he's leaving any option open, it's only a possible career-ending run with his hometown Canucks, near his parents, and perhaps taking him through the 2010 Olympics in, let's see ... oh, that's right -- Vancouver.
He will be back with Colorado. But what would the harm be in loaning him out to the Stars? That trade scenario is farfetched. Yet what about such pending unrestricted free agents from likely non-playoff teams as St. Louis' Keith Tkachuk and Bill Guerin, Florida's Todd Bertuzzi and Gary Roberts, Chicago's utilitarian Bryan Smolinski or even the Rangers' Brendan Shanahan (if New York doesn't get another point between now and the deadline)? Let's say all of those guys (play along again, OK?) want to go back and their teams want them back. They go to a playoff team at the deadline for a rental payment and they go back after July 1.
Heck, that's even being discussed openly as a possibility for Tkachuk.
Remove the temptation. Eliminate the possibility of an appearance of a conflict of interest, even if it takes NHL commissioner Gary Bettman's stepping in as if his powers are pervasive.
Regardless, work to get a Doug Weight Rule on the books. Someday.
Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."