A Battle of Ontario for Chara, Redden?

BRUCE GARRIOCH -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 8:29 AM ET

There could be a Battle of Ontario waged off the ice for Senators defencemen Zdeno Chara and Wade Redden next summer.

Believe it or not, that was the word coming out of the Big Smoke last night as the Leafs made a Thanksgiving Day visit to the Corel Centre to face the arch-rival Senators.

Although unrestricted free agency for the Senators' duo won't come to fruition until July 1, 2006, there are indications Leafs brass has already started thinking ahead.

Contracts for captain Mats Sundin and goaltender Eddie Belfour will see the two receive raises next season. However, the extra money will still only put the Leafs at the $18-million (all terms US) mark for the salary cap, leaving about $21 million to spend.

Two names on Leafs GM John Ferguson Jr.'s hitlist for next summer are in fact Chara and Redden, who will both test the NHL's free-agent market unless the Senators are able to re-sign them.

It's hard to take this kind of talk seriously in October, but even Senators GM John Muckler doesn't doubt the Leafs would want to sign Redden and Chara.

Muckler also knows the good folks at the Air Canada Centre wouldn't be the only ones focused in on the blueliners, which could produce a bidding war with each player taking home the maximum $7.8 million.

"No question (the Leafs would be interested)," said Muckler. "But they would be in a long line of teams. "I think what you've got is just somebody trying to stir the pot and put a dent in our armour because right now if you look at us, we don't have many dents."

Sources say the people at Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment -- particularly chairman Larry Tanenbaum -- would like to keep the edge over the Senators in the Battle of Ontario.

While Senators owner Eugene Melnyk has tried to be diplomatic, he has never been able to hide his disdain for the Leafs.

He would love nothing more than to a win a Stanley Cup before Toronto, which hasn't seen a parade in its city since 1967.

The reality is the Leafs won't be the only team Melnyk is bidding against for the services of the dynamic duo

The Rangers, Islanders, Capitals, Thrashers, Panthers, Lightning, Sharks and Canucks will all take runs.

But the advantage still lies with the Senators, who will have the opportunity to convince Chara and Redden to stay before any other team attempts to lure them away.

Both players, for the record, have made it clear it's their preference to stay with Ottawa.

"We haven't had any talks with Ottawa lately and that's kind of been by design because we're not in any hurry," said Chara's agent Matt Keator.

"We've agreed we're going to talk at some point. (Chara) has made it pretty clear he wants to stay in Ottawa and we'll see what happens."


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