Originally created 07/01/00

NHL free-agent season opens Saturday



The NHL's free-agent season opens Saturday.

For players over age 31 like Mark Messier and Claude Lemieux, unrestricted free agency awaits: no strings attached, sign with any team that's interested with no compensation required.

For younger stars like Joe Sakic and Jason Arnott, restricted free agency gives them little leverage. Teams are reluctant to sign them because the compensation, usually five first-round draft picks, is stiff.

Philadelphia's Eric Lindros, recuperating his latest concussion, will be in one group or the other. The Flyers had until midnight Friday to retain his rights by making Lindros an $8.5-million qualifying offer. Otherwise, he would become an unrestricted free agent with the New York Rangers, Toronto Maple Leafs and Los Angeles Kings all interested.

There probably won't be much activity until next week. GMs will receive the final list of restricted and unrestricted free agents Saturday. After that, the cat-and-mouse game begins.

"I don't think I'll call any agents (Saturday)," Mike Smith, manager of hockey operations for the Blackhawks, told the Chicago Sun-Times. "I'll wait for them to call us. That's how I do it.

"What's the rush? If someone wants to sign on Saturday, it's probably an indication of tampering. If (we lose a player because we didn't go after him right away), that happens. We're not in a rush to jump right in."

Friday's formality for NHL clubs was to make qualifying offers to their respective restricted free agents. Since qualifying offers usually represent the same salary the player earned the season before, there often remains much negotiating before training camp.

After teams make a qualifying offer, players then have 30 days to accept it or become restricted free agents.

Not all restricted free agents will get qualifying offers. Last summer, the Montreal Canadiens decided not to make one to winger Jonas Hoglund, who at 26, became an unrestricted free agent and signed with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

This year it's Alexandre Daigle, who was informed by the Rangers that he wouldn't get a qualifying offer and thus becomes an unrestricted free agent.

"I do not anticipate being really active," Canucks GM Brian Burke told the Vancouver Sun. "Now that might change if teams don't qualify certain guys who would then move from the restricted list to the unrestricted list."

The Vancouver Canucks opted to pay the 39-year-old Messier a $2 million buyout for the final two years of his five-year contract instead of being on the hook for $6 million a season.

Officially the Canucks still hold a faint hope of convincing their captain to return to Vancouver at a reduced salary.

"I discussed with Mark what our level of interest is," Burke said Friday. "He told me he intended to look around."

"We're sitting tight until July 1 gets here," Doug Messier, Mark's father and agent, said from his South Carolina home on Friday. "There's nothing new to report right now."

Lemieux, who turns 35 on July 16, says that while he "absolutely" wants to return to the Devils, he'll be testing the market.

"I've come this far, so I'll look at all the options," Lemieux told the Bergen (N.J.) Record. "But, yeah, I'd absolutely want to come back. It was a great year, and we had a lot of fun. When you win, there's no better ending to a season.

"But it has to be the right deal. If it is, that's where I'll be."

Other players who are due to become unrestricted free agents today include forwards Shayne Corson, Gary Roberts, Dallas Drake and Rick Tocchet; defensemen Vladimir Malakhov, Mathieu Schneider, Paul Coffey, Dave Manson and Sylvain Cote; and goaltenders Bob Essensa, Ron Tugnutt, Sean Burke and Tom Barasso.

Other restricted free agents include forwards Doug Weight, Owen Nolan, Slava Kozlov, Brian Savage, Adam Deadmarsh and Mike Peca; defensemen Sandis Ozolinsh, Scott Niedermayer, Alexei Zhitnik, Roman Hamrlik, Kenny Jonsson and Sergei Gonchar; and goaltenders Felix Potvin, Chris Osgood, Steve Shields and Jose Theodore.