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Inside the NHL: Shuffling of MVPs leaves hockey world asking questions

Sunday, October 07, 2001

WASHINGTON -- Jaromir Jagr was welcomed to the Capitals' fold last night by a boisterous ovation at the MCI Center, the likes of which this region never had heard for any hockey player.

Similar applause, no doubt, will greet Eric Lindros with his New York debut tonight.

And the same should apply for Dominik Hasek Wednesday night in Detroit.

This is how cities tend to react on those rare occasions in which a Hart Trophy winner is acquired by their team. Only it's obviously not so rare anymore.

In the past 20 years, only three others -- Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier and Brett Hull -- were traded after having been named the NHL's most valuable player. And a flip through "Total Hockey," the sport's official encyclopedia, reveals that never since the league began awarding the Hart in 1924 had three MVPs been dealt in the same off-season.

Although each MVP dealt this summer will make more than $8 million this season, there isn't that much of a link to explain their teams moving them.

Jagr demanded a trade for reasons that weren't financial, and the Penguins decided they didn't want an unhappy superstar. Lindros had been pleading with the Flyers to be dealt for years, and Bobby Clarke finally heard an offer he liked. And Hasek was the only one clearly dealt in a cost-cutting move as the Sabres were anxious to pawn off his salary.

Still, seeing three elite players traded by the teams with which they carved their reputations has many close to the game worrying something might be wrong.

"Obviously, it's a concern, but that's the way the system works right now," Mario Lemieux said Tuesday. "For sure, we're at a disadvantage compared to some other teams, but we have no choice. That's the way we have to do business now. And until the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, you are going to see a lot of player movement like that."

Between now and 2004, the year the contract between the NHL and its players union ends, the onus is on Commissioner Gary Bettman to influence team owners to be more cautious with payrolls. He tried that before this past summer, though, and got little more than a shrug from the likes of the free-spending Avalanche, Blues, Stars, Flyers and Red Wings.

By no coincidence, those teams are the early favorites to win the Stanley Cup.

"I am focused very much on the disparities that appear to be developing and, long-term, that can be a troublesome trend," Bettman said in a conference call Monday. "If the trend continues, it's something we're going to have to address. In the short term, it has not led to a competitive imbalance."

Bettman dismissed the notion that spending equals success.

"Well, what we've seen over the past few years has been a lack of correlation between what's spent and performance. You have a team like the Rangers -- just to pick an example, not to pick on them -- who had the highest payroll in the league for the past four years and haven't played in the playoffs. You have a team like the Devils, which has a mid-range payroll and made the Stanley Cup final the past two years, winning the Cup one of the two."

Bettman also downplayed any common thread in watching Jagr, Lindros and Hasek get traded.

"Whether or not they were allegedly for financial reasons, I think the vast bulk of the clubs are trying to operate within their means, and there may be a handful that either have greater means or are operating beyond their means. If that's something that's going to throw the system out of whack -- that's something we're watching closely -- then it will have to be dealt with."

Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at dkovacevic@ post-gazette.com.

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