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Penguins

NHL's free-agent season opens amid uncertainty

| Thursday, July 1, 2004

Everybody knows that a record number of NHL players hit the open market this morning.

Nobody knows what will happen now.

"It's obviously a unique time," said agent Rob Murray, a player representative for nearly 30 years. "As we talk to the general managers, nobody is real sure what's going to happen."

Why the uncertainty• Because it's impossible to predict what the NHL's new Collective Bargaining Agreement will look like.

The current CBA expires Sept. 15, at which time most expect a lengthy lockout. The owners want a salary cap. The players want no part of one.

In the meantime, what's a general manager to do?

A player such as flashy right winger Alexei Kovalev, who became an unrestricted free agent today, made $6.6 million last season. He might have commanded even more had he become an unrestricted free agent two years ago.

Now, it's anyone's guess as to what sorts of offers Kovalev will receive, although he shouldn't expect to break the bank.

General managers probably aren't going to want to break ranks and dish out huge contracts.

"Will there be some kind of directive (issued to GM's)• Well, that would be collusion," said agent Roland Thompson. "But there might be something more subtle."

Some believe that only a small percentage of the 150-plus free agents will receive a contract before Sept. 15. Others believe teams will look to gobble up players at bargain rates.

"You still have to field a team," Thompson said. "If you wait too long, someone might grab those players.

"If I'm a general manager, I'm thinking maybe the early bird gets the worm."

Besides Kovalev, the prominent unrestricted free agents were expected to include forwards Brett Hull, Ziggy Palffy, Teemu Selanne, Paul Kariya, Mark Recchi, Alexei Zhamnov and Petr Nedved.

Teppo Numminen, Chris Chelios and Mathieu Schneider were expected to be among the prime defensemen available.

Palffy, for one, obviously still believes the huge contracts are forthcoming. He turned down a three-year, $19 million offer from the Kings.

One reason so many players are unsigned is that teams did not retain as many restricted free agents as usual.

It was still possible as of last night that the following players were going to become unrestricted free agents because their teams did not give them a "qualifying offer." St. Louis winger Pavol Demitra; New York Islanders defenseman Roman Hamrlik; and Chicago winger Eric Daze.

Many players who were given qualifying offers still might file for arbitration, which could make for an even busier summer.

Just not as busy as usual, perhaps, in the next few days.

"I think the good players will get jobs fairly quickly," Thompson said. "The marginal players may not."

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