NEW YORK, NOV. 28 -- Sometimes a little deal can beget a blockbuster trade.

When the Edmonton Oilers sent minor league defenseman Bruce Bell to the Minnesota North Stars last week for little-used Finnish goalie Kari Takko, it did not cause much of a stir.

Bell was in the AHL; Takko had played just two games for the North Stars and wasn't likely to play much more, what with Brian Hayward coming from Montreal to join Jon Casey.

But the Takko-Bell trade might be Edmonton General Manager Glen Sather's first step in dealing the goalie who helped the Oilers win four Stanley Cups: Grant Fuhr.

The defending Stanley Cup-champion Oilers are in last place in the Smythe Division and are having trouble scoring. They are looking for a second-line center and a point man on the power play.

"Everyone is waiting for Edmonton to do something," said Brian Burke, Vancouver's director of hockey operations.

Fuhr was suspended before the season for what he said was past substance abuse. He recently resumed practicing, but the earliest he could be reinstated by NHL President John Ziegler is Feb. 18. However, once Fuhr is cleared, the Oilers will have to put a goalie on waivers, because they received an exemption for Fuhr during the October waiver draft.

Certainly, Fuhr will be protected, as will Bill Ranford -- who was the playoff MVP last spring and has been outstanding despite Edmonton's troubled start. Eldon "Pokey" Reddick, who hasn't played a minute for the Oilers in two months, and Takko are the ones likely to be available.

But Edmonton can only lose one of them. If Sather wants to finish the season with Fuhr and Ranford, then Takko or Reddick can play for the Oilers' AHL team in Cape Breton.

However, if Sather and Coach John Muckler think Takko can be an adequate backup to Ranford, then Fuhr represents juicy trade bait. Teams might wonder if he is clean of drugs, but they will know he was probably the best goalie in the 1980s, and he is only 28. Next for Rangers: Leetch

New York Rangers defenseman James Patrick signed a three-year contract for about $2.25 million, which may nudge him ahead of the deal Washington's Kevin Hatcher recently signed, although Hatcher's performance clauses could push him higher in future seasons.

The real contractual test for the Rangers may come in the summer of 1992. Brian Leetch, who is just 22, is second to Al MacInnis in scoring among NHL defensemen. The former U.S. Olympian and NHL rookie of the year has this season and an option year left on his contract, which is paying him about $230,000 this season.

Where the escalating salaries will be in 18 months is uncertain. But there also will be a new collective bargaining agreement by then, with expectations of less restrictive free agency.

"Our feeling is that with Patrick and Hatcher, in neither case was the club forced to do something, though with Hatcher, he was holding out," said Leetch's agent, Jay Grossman.

"In neither case was it the ultimate end, where a player plays out his option and goes to another team. In our case, unless the Rangers really come up with a lot of money next summer, it's our thinking that Brian will play out his option." In a freer market, Leetch could pull in $2 million or more. Too Much History?

The Montreal Canadiens, who will make their only regular season visit to Capital Centre Friday, probably have more tradition than any other NHL team. But not everyone has enjoyed it.

Claude Lemieux, who was traded to New Jersey over the summer, compared the two environments: "Everyone is a lot more relaxed and you get more time for yourself in New Jersey. In Montreal, hockey is everything. Montreal is one of the oldest franchises and has a lot of Stanley Cups behind it.

"If you need something in Montreal, you have to talk to five different people. Here, you talk to the same person most of the time."