Which free agents will Sens chase?

BRUCE GARRIOCH, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:50 PM ET

It’s time for the NHL’s big spenders to open their wallets.

And when the free-agency period opens at noon on Thursday, Senators GM Bryan Murray will be among those in the market for help.

There aren’t many impact players available — winger Ilya Kovalchuk is expected to make a dash for the Los Angeles Kings, but GMs will try to use the market to fill in holes in their lineups.

“I would suspect that GMs are going to identify the cream of the crop and those guys are going to go pretty quickly,” said one high-profile agent. “There’s still a chance for some teams to make changes and bring in some good players.”

The Senators have to be careful how they spend, with nearly $49 million committed to 13 players. Restricted free agents Chris Campoli, Peter Regin, Nick Foligno and Jesse Winchester also require deals. Here are some players to watch:

D ANTON VOLCHENKOV: The Senators blueliner could get upwards of 10 calls. Murray was expected to make one last call Wednesday, but seemed frustrated. The Rangers are going to be a frontrunner. The shot-blocking Volchenkov will be seeking $4.5-$5 million per season. The Capitals, Sharks and Blues are all looking for a defensive defenceman.

D SERGEI GONCHAR: Talks to keep the veteran in Pittsburgh broke down. The Senators want a puck mover and they’re expected to show interest here. There will be plenty of competition. Gonchar is the best defenceman available. Outside of an injury-disrupted 2006-07 season, Gonchar is always in the 50-point range, with 67 in 2006-07.

F RAY WHITNEY: The veteran could be second-most-productive forward available, behind Kovalchuk. Whitney, 38, should get plenty of interest. He’ll be looking for a two-year deal worth about $7 million.

The Senators took a look at Whitney at the trade deadline, Tampa GM Steve Yzerman is expected to make a pitch here and Leafs GM Brian Burke may hop into the bidding. Whitney can help any team looking for leadership and depth.

D ZBYNEK MICHALEK: The brother of Senators winger Milan is a shot-blocking defenceman, who would be a good replacement for Volchenkov. The Flyers will likely hop into the bidding. And Shark GM Doug Wilson is a fan of the defenceman.

D KURTIS FOSTER: The Senators tried to acquire the local product from the Lightning at the trade deadline, but weren’t able to get a deal done. Foster will get a raise from the $600,000 he made last season. The Senators are expected to try to entice him to play at home. The 28-year-old Foster was willing to take a “hometown discount” to stay with the Lightning, but the two sides weren’t close to an agreement.

The Senators will likely also look at Pittsburgh defenceman Dan Hamhuis. He will likely get upwards of $5 million on the market.


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