Eyes are on pair of Sens

BRUCE GARRIOCH -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 9:34 AM ET

The Senators are bracing for a raid on restricted free agents Antoine Vermette and Andrej Meszaros.

League sources told Sun Media yesterday the Canucks, Thrashers and Blue Jackets are so desperate to make a splash on the free-agent market, they're all looking at making offers for the highly touted winger and defenceman.

The Senators would have the right to match any offer sheet to keep Vermette and Meszaros.

GM Bryan Murray, on a conference call to announce the signings of unrestricted free-agent wingers Shean Donovan and Jarkko Ruuttu, confirmed he held talks with agents for Vermette and Meszaros as recently as yesterday, but isn't close to a deal with either.

"I'm hoping we're proceeding down the right path and I'm hoping that we can come to an agreement that can allow both of these guys to be in the lineup for the Ottawa Senators," said Murray.

Murray, who has about $42 million (all terms US) committed to salaries next season -- out of the $56.7-million cap -- said he's set aside money to sign both Vermette and Meszaros, who made $1.075 million and $984,000, respectively, last season. Each will get significant raises.

Murray is also well aware that other clubs are ready to make their pitches.

"I don't think it's up to me to give specific numbers," Murray said when asked how much the Senators have spent toward the cap.

"We do have some money left and we are trying to be responsible and we are trying to have some money available, first of all, if there are any problems with our negotiations. We want to be able to handle that, whether it be offer sheets or whatever it may be. That's part of it."

Offer sheets could come from Canucks GM Mike Gillis, who's getting "aggressive" after taking heat for doing little after taking over from the fired Dave Nonis.

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Gillis offered $20 million over two seasons to Mats Sundin, but was rebuffed by the 37-year-old star centre, who's not ready to make a decision on his hockey future just yet.

Gillis also offered Blues RFA winger David Backes a three-year, $7.5-million deal -- an offer that was matched by St. Louis.

"We are trying to be aggressive to get the best team here that we can possibly get," Gillis told a Vancouver newspaper. "From what I can tell, professionalism is more important than friendship."

Thrashers GM Don Waddell and Blue Jackets counterpart Scott Howson haven't done that type of talking. Both, however, are under pressure to make the playoffs next year and could take drastic measures to get there.


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