After a steady diet of Chris Pronger, a buffet table brimming with free-agent defencemen opens at noon tomorrow.
National Hockey League general managers have until then to judge the merits of trading for the reluctant Edmonton Oiler and Norris Trophy winner versus paying for a quality defenceman without giving up an asset.
Barring last-minute deals with their current teams, the potential free-agent menu includes fellow Norris winners Nicklas Lidstrom and Rob Blake, plus Zdeno Chara and Pavel Kubina.
One edge Oilers GM Kevin Lowe does have, despite Pronger shocking him last week with the trade request, is the four years remaining on Pronger's contract at $6.25 million US per season. Given yesterday's newly signed Wade Redden will make $6.5 million this season and next in Ottawa and Bryan McCabe $5.75 million a year under the terms of his new five-year deal with the Leafs, Pronger is a relative bargain.
Redden soared to No. 1 on the Senators payroll ahead of captain Daniel Alfredsson, who makes $4.67 million.
The Leafs will at least start the season with their top defensive pairing together, unless general manager John Ferguson decides to part with Tomas Kaberle in a Pronger package. Kaberle's agent, Rick Curran, already has warned the Oilers that they would be trading one contract problem for another. When he re-signed with the Leafs four months ago at less than market value, Kaberle was given strong assurances the Leafs would not move him before the no-trade portion of multi-year deal kicked in tomorrow.
An ex-Leaf angling to come back for family reasons is Gary Roberts, but there are complications with simply opening the door for the Leafs' 2002 playoff MVP. He's 40 years old on a team going to a youth movement, he's not a free agent and he didn't exactly part on good terms with Ferguson last summer.
But the GM is aware that Toronto has an allure for many players.
"I know what a tremendous place this is to play," Ferguson said. "It's playing on the grandest stage. They (Roberts and Keenan) know where to find me. They have my (phone) number."
In other league developments yesterday, the Dallas Stars bought out Bill Guerin, a power forward who four years ago was in serious negotiation with the Leafs. He eventually chose Dallas because his family had been away from their native U.S. home while he played in Edmonton. But Guerin is now 35, coming off a 40-point year and might not be so picky this time.
Roberto Luongo received the multi-year, mega-deal that was denied him in Florida, signing with the Vancouver Canucks for four years at $27 million. He gets a no-trade clause for the final three years of the deal.