Homegrown hopes

KIRK PENTON, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:32 AM ET

Kickers, defensive backs and offensive linemen will be the focus for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers when free agency kicks off tomorrow night.

And if they hail from north of the border, all the better.

"Free agency is best served to the Canadian player," Bombers head coach Mike Kelly said. "The Canadians become the most important in free agency, as far as I'm concerned. The talent pool of American players has increased exponentially without those other leagues playing.

"We think we can go down (to the U.S.), and we think we've already signed some outstanding football players. And there's more to find. To me, free agency isn't about American players. To me, free agency is about Canadian players and strengthening your Canadian base as much as you can."

That said, the Bombers are poised to have seven free agents when the clock strikes 11 o'clock tomorrow night, and five of them are Canadian. Of those five, three are offensive linemen, usually the most coveted pieces on the CFL's annual meat market.

Left tackle Alexandre Gauthier, centre Dominic Picard and right guard Kyle Koch -- all starters -- are expected to reach free agency tomorrow night. Gauthier and Picard want to explore their options, while Koch is keen on returning.

There are three other Canadian offensive lineman eligible to become free agents tomorrow night, including Edmonton's Joe McGrath, and Saskatchewan's Mike Abou-Mechrek (a former Bomber) and Steve Morley, who had knee surgery in December.

There are also homegrown hogs who have already been let go by their respective teams, including Luke Fritz and Dave Mudge in Montreal, Tim Bakker in Edmonton and Andrew Greene in Toronto.

The Bombers might be less concerned about losing Gauthier considering their projected starting quarterback, Stefan LeFors, is left-handed. That means incumbent right tackle Dan Goodspeed will probably be in charge of protecting LeFors' blind side.

Generally speaking, the Bombers will be interested in a few players from other teams, but Kelly said the focus will be on his own players.

"A lot of it depends on what happens with our guys," Kelly said. "I would prefer to keep the players that we have. If they so choose to leave, we're not going to get caught off guard. We have alternative plans."

Arguably the top player poised to hit the market tomorrow night, B.C.'s Rob Murphy, just so happens to be an offensive lineman. Murphy told Vancouver reporters this week that every CFL team except Montreal has, in one way or another, expressed interest in his services.

Winnipeg's other players poised to hit the market are a pair of Canadians, special teams demon Graeme Bell and backup defensive tackle Jon Oosterhuis, and import linebackers Ike Charlton and Cam Hall.

It's believed the Bombers are close to re-signing Charlton, but Hall has been told he can seek employment elsewhere. Oosterhuis said yesterday that his agent is still talking with the Bombers.

"We've been talking a little bit, but we'll wait and see what happens in the next couple days," Oosterhuis said.

On the other end of the free-agency spectrum is Bell, who just started talking to director of football operations Ross Hodgkinson but sounds like he'll be back in Blue and Gold shortly.

"To be honest, I didn't even know when free agency was," Bell said. "(Hodgkinson) had told me, and it just slipped my mind.

"... Obviously I've loved Winnipeg, and it's been a great city. I'm trying to get something worked out."

It's expected the Bombers will hotly pursue Calgary punter Burke Dales and Montreal cornerback Mark Estelle, but Kelly said he isn't head over heels in love with any potential free agent.

"I don't think Dunigan can play anymore," he said.

---

GOING FREE?

Winnipeg's seven potential free agents:

- OL Alexandre Gauthier

- OL Dominic Picard

- OL Kyle Koch

- FB Graeme Bell

- DT Jon Oosterhuis

- LB Ike Charlton

- LB Cam Hall


Videos

Photos