Show me the money

BRUCE GARRIOCH

, Last Updated: 7:47 AM ET

Gentlemen, open your wallets!

You can bet some NHL teams are salivating at the opportunity to spend, spend, spend when free-agent frenzy begins at noon on Tuesday.

With the salary cap escalating to $56.7 million (all figures US) and the floor around $40 million (higher than the original $39-million cap the players agreed to in July 2005 to get a new collective bargaining agreement in place), teams are going to be in the mood to hand out some fat contracts.

Some executives aren't happy. Sources say during a meeting last month at the Stanley Cup final in Detroit, NHL GMs unloaded on commissioner Gary Bettman because the cap has forced some of them to spend to the floor, irritating their stingy owners.

"We're going to spend like crazy because we have to do that to compete," said a league executive. "We're still going to have empty seats and we're going to have to battle to make the playoffs. (Bettman) sits there and everything rolls off him. He's got Teflon skin, this guy."

Griping aside, there are teams that can't wait to open their wallets.

"I would expect what you're going to see is the same kind of insanity that you've seen for the last 10 years," said another league executive. "Not only are there teams that are willing to spend to the cap, there are teams that have to get to the floor.

"You're going to see the usual kind of fireworks that we've always seen. Teams see this day as the opportunity to get a player who can put them over the top and take them to another level. It's going to be interesting to see where the money goes."

The free agent class of 2008 isn't exactly overloaded with talent. The only No. 1 centre is Toronto captain Mats Sundin and he hasn't even confirmed that he will return for another season. Pittsburgh winger Marian Hossa is the class of the forwards and San Jose defenceman Brian Campbell leads the blue-line corps.

Washington's Cristobal Huet and Colorado's Jose Theodore are the only proven netminders available. Both could probably get big deals on the free-agent market, but their agents are trying to get deals done before they hit the market.

The New York Rangers, Tampa Bay, Chicago, Columbus, Montreal, Pittsburgh, Vancouver, Florida, Ottawa and Toronto all want to be aggressive. What does that mean for the players? A bidding war for services because so few are available.

"The cap has really changed free agency," said agent J.P. Barry, the co-managing director of CAA Sports, who represents Sundin among many notables.

"If you value a player, you're really going to have to pay to get him and you're going to have to give him more (of a) term.

"The cap has made players want to get more years. It's going to be interesting this year with the scarcity of high-end talent available, compared to past years. I still think you're going to see the usual frenzy and, as usual, a lot of those top guys will get done in the first three to four days."

When the NHLPA agreed to a salary cap, Bettman predicted the ceiling would act as a magnet. On that front, he's been correct, but really it's been the decision to allow free agency after seven years of service that has changed the face of the game.

Trying to keep their players, teams have made deals they never would have dreamed of touching in the past. Facing the possibility of losing centres Mike Fisher and Jason Spezza and winger Dany Heatley, the Senators signed them all to long-term contracts midway through last season.

They simply had no choice. Look at Pittsburgh GM Ray Shero, who paid a heavy price to get Hossa at the deadline and could wind up losing him for nothing.

Defenceman Brooks Orpik and winger Ryan Malone are likely to follow Hossa out the door.

GMs are going to have to spend if they want to compete. It can work. All teams have to do is look at the trip the Philadelphia Flyers made from the worst team in the league to the top of standings to realize that free agency can mean a quick turnaround.

Another area to keep an eye on is restricted free agency. Teams are vulnerable because they're up against the salary cap. Edmonton GM Kevin Lowe opened a can of worms last summer by signing Buffalo's Thomas Vanek to an offer sheet (that was matched) and then succeeding in nabbing Anaheim's Dustin Penner.

The players are getting ready for the onslaught. Agents bring in extra phones to handle the volume of calls. You can bet they will be ringing off the hook by 12:01 p.m. and the first signing will likely be in place soon after. The money will be flying fast and furious. It always does.

---

TOP OF THE CLASS

A list of players to keep an eye on July 1

Marian Hossa, RW, Pittsburgh

He's the top player on the market. Possible suitors: Rangers, Chicago, Montreal, Boston, Vancouver, Toronto and Pittsburgh.

Mats Sundin, C, Toronto

He'll be there and ready to move. He doesn't decide anything quickly. Possible suitors: Montreal, Vancouver, Rangers, Ottawa, Buffalo and Toronto.

Jaromir Jagr, RW, Rangers

There's a chance he could end up in Russia. Market will be limited. Possible suitors: Pittsburgh and the Rangers.

Ryan Malone, LW, Pittsburgh Has this guy's stock gone up? He's suddenly become a solution for a lot of teams. Possible suitors: Columbus, Minnesota, Vancouver, Tampa, Montreal, Boston and Chicago.

Brian Campbell, D, San Jose

He's not going back to the Sharks. Ideally, he'd like to get back to the East. Possible suitors: Ottawa, Toronto, Chicago and Atlanta.

Mark Streit, D, Montreal

His role increased with the Habs this season. Teams are going to call. He will cash in. Possible suitors: Los Angeles, Phoenix, San Jose, Tampa and Boston.

Wade Redden, D, Ottawa

Will have to take a pay cut from the $6.5 million he was paid last season. He should be okay at $5 million. Possible suitors: Florida, San Jose, Boston, Phoenix and Chicago.

Ron Hainsey, D, Columbus

His stock has risen. Teams are keeping an eye on him. He could make as much as $5 million. Possible suitors: Florida, San Jose, Ottawa, Tampa and Chicago.

Cristobal Huet, G, Washington

He has no baggage and is the most valuable option available. Only question: Can he lead a team to a Stanley Cup? Possible suitors: Los Angeles, Tampa and Washington.

---

TOP OF THE CLASS

A list of players to keep an eye on July 1

Pierre-MarcBouchard, C, Minnesota

Jay Bouwmeester, D, Florida

Nigel Dawes, LW, N.Y. Rangers

Pascal Leclaire, G, Columbus

Antoine Vermette, RW, Ottawa

Andrej Meszaros, D, Ottawa


Videos

Photos