Free agent frenzy

BRUCE GARRIOCH -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 8:49 AM ET

The NHL and the Players' Association could be on the verge of a massive war that might put free agents such as Marian Hossa, Martin Havlat, Jason Spezza, Rick Nash and Dany Heatley on the open market this summer, the Sun has learned.

Several agents told the Sun yesterday if there's no collective bargaining agreement in place by July 1 -- the date players whose contracts expire must receive the required qualifying offers -- then they are prepared to take legal action to get their clients declared unrestricted free agents.

Such a move would strike hard at the core of the Senators roster. The contracts of Hossa, Havlat, Spezza, Todd White and Anton Volchenkov all expire this summer, as do those of hundreds of players around the NHL.

NHL VP Bill Daly has maintained these players will have their status determined once a new CBA has been agreed upon. But the agents' argument may be a reason the NHLPA hasn't been in a hurry to get a deal done.

"We could very well see the largest pool of young unrestricted free agent talent on the market in sports history," said Calgary-based agent J.P. Barry, co-managing director of IMG Hockey. "In addition to draft-age players such as (Sidney) Crosby, (Gilbert) Brule, (Mike) Richards and (Jeff) Carter being available, you can add a few hundred other free agents in the prime of their careers to the list of players available to any team. There are less than 300 players under contract for the 2005-06 season.

"Looking to rebuild? How about Joe Thornton, Rick Nash, Jarome Iginla or Dany Heatley? The list of star players in the prime of their careers that may be available is remarkable."

The agents have an eye toward June 1, when all North American players selected in the 2003 draft have to be signed. That list includes Flyers prospects Carter and Richards, Washington's Eric Fehr and Pittsburgh's Ryan Stone.

In Ottawa's case, they need to get centre Patrick Eaves, who had a standout season at Boston College, under contract. Under normal circumstances, those players would be able to petition to re-enter the 2005 draft if they don't ink a deal.

"The NHL has recently adopted a patently illogical argument that contract years expire during the lockout, but retention rights to draftees and formerly contracted players are 'frozen,' " said Barry. "The fact is, we are now in completely uncharted legal waters as this is the first professional sports league to miss an entire season by way of lockout.

"If no agreement is reached in the next month, this retention rights issue will likely be a very major topic in the negotiations."


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