The outcome of the negotiations could determine the Kings' future as well as the fortunes of as many as eight other teams that think they can win the Stanley Cup this year. If Los Angeles trades Blake to defense-starved Toronto or another contending club before the March 13 deadline—letting him leave next summer for a compensatory draft pick isn't an option for a general manager who likes his job, as the Kings' Dave Taylor seems to—that team will have the inside track to a championship. Like defenseman Raymond Bourque last season, Blake can leverage the entire league. (Bourque transformed the Colorado Avalanche, which after acquiring him won 23 of its last 32 games and reached Game 7 of the Western Conference finals before losing to the Dallas Stars.)
There will be the usual flurry of trades before the deadline, mostly by general managers who want to plug a hole, but Blake is the only player whose move in the next seven weeks could shift the power in the NHL. "He's the best defenseman in the league, by a lot," says Los Angeles left wing Luc Robitaille, who is also eligible for unrestricted free agency on July 1. "He hits, he's our key defensive player, he's our most dangerous player on the power play, and no other big guy can skate as fast as he can. If you take him by himself, he's unbelievable. Now put him on one of the top teams, and his impact is incredible."
Through Sunday, Blake had 16 goals and 45 points for the high-scoring Kings, a point-per-game pace that would be the most productive of his 11-year career. Along with Bourque, Pronger and Al MacInnis of the Blues, Brian Leetch of die New York Rangers and Nicklas Lidstrom of the Detroit Red Wings, Blake, the league's leading goal scorer at his position, is one of the defensemen who towers over hockey, even though he has an unsightly plus-minus rating (0).
He's also one of eight potential unrestricted free agents among the top 30 scorers. That number might reflect nothing more than the unprecedented quality of this year's unrestricteds—try these guys on your power play: Robitaille, Avalanche center Joe Sakic, Blues center Pierre Turgeon, New Jersey Devils right wing Alexander Mogilny, Phoenix Coyotes center Jeremy Roenick, injured Philadelphia Flyers left wing John LeClair and Washington Capitals right wing Peter Bondra—but Oliver Stone has made films based on shakier theories than one that maintains that every potential unrestricted free agent who has a standout season excels only because he's on a salary drive.
"I would imagine that some motivation is not there the other years [of a contract]," Murray says. "Something in the back of their heads, a little inspiration, seems to kick in. You talk about stats for baseball players: How often have you seen the numbers go way up in the free-agent year? Baseball players seem to turn it up when they need to. I don't think that hockey players necessarily do that, but if you look at the numbers, there's certainly some indication of it."
The implacable Blake is as unmoved by that theory as he was by the rumor mill in Toronto. The one flash point came in September when, he says, the Kings gave him 12 hours to respond to a take-it-or-leave-it offer, reportedly $22.5 million for three years. Blake and his agent, Ron Salcer, needed all of five minutes to turn it down. In a fit of pique unbecoming an NHL captain, Blake resigned his position, although within a week he changed his mind about not wearing the C after realizing he would be the leader of the Kings with or without a letter on his chest.
Taylor met with Blake and Salcer again last month, and though Blake said the discussion cleared the air, he added that no specific contract offer was made. Taylor, however, says, "We have made a number of offers to Rob, and they've all been rejected." Meanwhile Los Angeles has heard from several clubs inquiring about Blake, setting the stage for a perhaps necessary option that would strip the Kings of an explosive player and call into question management's commitment to winning. "I don't see how they can afford not to sign him," says Bill Watters, Toronto's assistant to the president. "They have a big building to fill, and he's their key player."
The Kings and Blake have some common ground. It's sand. While Blake is a farm kid, he has embraced Southern California, especially the beach culture. He lives in Manhattan Beach with his wife, Brandy—"You fall out of his bedroom, and you're on the sand," Emerson says—and has become an accomplished beach volleyball player. Most hockey players hit 265-yard drives in the off-season. Blake, a clichéd 6' 4" California blond, spikes. He's an A tournament player, which, in hockey terms, he says, "is like playing one level below the East Coast league."
He's also tied to the area by the Kings' occasional shining moments, especially the rollicking run to the 1993 finals. In the championship series against the Montreal Canadiens, the L.A. Forum shook, and fans queued up outside an airport hotel to gaze slack-jawed at the Stanley Cup, a rite of spring in cities like Detroit and Denver but a startling development in preoccupied Los Angeles. In his perfect world Blake would win a Cup with the Kings. Pressed last week for a list of four other cities in which he might like to play, he mentions Toronto and then stops.
"At this stage in my career I have to win something somewhere," he says. "We've made strides here, but are we a Stanley Cup team right now? No. We have holes to fill. I'm only a few months from free agency, but if I got traded, it would be difficult for me to make a quick decision on signing a long-term extension as part of that deal. That makes it tougher on the Kings"—Blake's trade value would be reduced if the team that obtained him thought it was merely leasing him for the rest of this season—"but that's how it is. I would need time to make the right decision."