Blue-liner bonanza

LANCE HORNBY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:25 AM ET

Defencemen Chris Pronger, Scott Niedermayer, Sergei Gonchar, Derian Hatcher and Bryan McCabe are all listed on the first or second all-star team in the past two years there was hockey played.

In a few days, all five could be available to the highest bidder as National Hockey League teams wrap up buyouts, get their houses in order and head toward the start of unrestricted free agent signings this Monday.

Pronger, yet another big name to be linked to the Maple Leafs, saw the writing on the wall when St. Louis Blues president Mark Sauer indicated the team is willing to keep only the contracts of forwards Doug Weight ($5.7 million US) and Keith Tkachuk ($7.8 million). The Blues have until Sunday to sign the restricted free-agent Pronger or give him a qualifying offer, which would allow them to match another club's offer or receive compensation if he signs elsewhere. Sauer said the Blues remain uncertain on how to proceed with their star defender.

"We're not trying to figure out, nor should we, how to spend to the max (the $39 million team salary cap)," Sauer told the St. Louis Post Dispatch. "I think it's maybe a better spending of major dollars if you're spending them on 27-year-old unrestricted free agents rather than 31-year-old unrestricted free agents.

"I'm not knocking Chris ... but remember, once you burn some of that salary cap room, you're done."

The Leafs and others will be in the hunt if Pronger can be had with no strings attached. Hatcher has been bought out by the Detroit Red Wings, Niedermayer appears out of the New Jersey Devils' plans and, like Gonchar, already is a free agent.

BUILDING DEFENCE

But Toronto's approach to the building of its overall defence still is a mystery. Agents for Ken Klee and Tomas Kaberle have spoken to Leafs general manager John Ferguson and are cautiously optimistic their clients are not buyout candidates as the Friday night deadline approaches.

"I don't think Bryan is a candidate, either," agent Jeff Solomon said last night from California. "But things could change. There is still time remaining."

If the three are to be kept -- McCabe has the biggest ticket at $3,35 million for this season -- that means less cap room to pursue any other top free agents.

It could be that Ferguson is counting on the $4 million he'd save by buying out winger Owen Nolan by Friday and not worrying for the moment about the grievances Nolan has lined up, claiming he is still suffering from a misdiagnosed knee injury from March 2004.

Nolan's knee operation at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio was a success yesterday and he is expected to be out four to six months.

Early predictions are that Hatcher will stay in the Western Conference, perhaps with Vancouver.

Niedermayer, the 2004 Norris Trophy winner, won't be cheap. He's expected to command close to the salary maximum in the new collective bargaining agreement of $7.8 million.

Hatcher is eyeing a return to the Dallas Stars. Gonchar garnered interest from the Leafs prior to moving from the Washington Capitals to the Boston Bruins at the 2004 trade deadline.


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