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Big decisions lie ahead this week as start of free agency looms

Is this the last week in the Buffalo Sabres careers of Chris Drury and Daniel Briere? Does Scott Gomez have seven days left as a New Jersey Devil? Was Ryan Smyth simply a rental with the New York Islanders? Has Sheldon Souray taken his last blast from the point for the Montreal Canadiens?

Big decisions lie ahead this week as the start of the July 1 free agency looms. The flood gates open at noon ET next Sunday.

"I expect the first two or three days in July to be pretty wild," said Detroit Red Wings GM Ken Holland.

No one will feel the heat more than Sabres GM Darcy Regier. He's got two of the most sought-after players who are pending unrestricted free agents in Drury and Briere.

"It's different, I can tell you that," Regier said of having two of the top free agents in the NHL. "I haven't experienced this before in 10 years. We'll see where it goes."

Somehow in the space of seven days Regier needs to find a way to make it work. Most people in and around hockey believe he'll only be able to keep one of them. The Sabres GM is thinking about all kinds of creative ways, such as maybe moving out other salary, to re-sign two players who would likely fetch in and around US$6 million a year on the open market.

"I think do you go through that process, you really do go through everything you can creatively imagine that makes sense," Regier said this weekend as the NHL entry draft wrapped up. "The more difficult thing in a situation like this, is that these things are no longer about one or two years.

"The term and the time is what is so different under the old CBA. It has ramifications that impact even your younger players."

The Toronto Maple Leafs made a splash acquiring goalie Vesa Toskala and winger Mark Bell on Friday and GM John Ferguson Jr. says he's not done.

"We're going to take a look around this week," said Ferguson. "It won't be just July 1 that we're going to be looking at. It's through trades, it's in other ways, but we'll be prepared July 1. We've got some money to spend and if there isn't anything there that makes sense to us, we'll look at a trade."

Expect the Leafs to be among a long list of teams vying for the services of Captain Canada. The Islanders will try to the very end to sign Smyth, but it appears he's headed for free agency. One rumour that just won't go away is the Calgary Flames also having interest in Smyth. Imagine the longtime heart and soul player of the Edmonton Oilers skating with the rival Flames. Unthinkable, right?

Calgary, meanwhile, is closing in on a new contract extension for captain Jarome Iginla, who was slated to be unrestricted after the 2007-08 season. An announcement could come as early as the first week of July.

Devils GM Lou Lamoriello has not only Gomez to try and keep but also defenceman Brian Rafalski as a pending unrestricted free agent.

"You're always speaking to them. You never know," Lamoriello said.

But the veteran GM admitted it appeared that Gomez will go ahead and try the market for the first time in his career.

"I think right now that's what I understand," said Lamoriello. "And certainly we have to respect that. Players put themselves in a position and you have to respect them, you shouldn't look at it any other way. That's the system, that's the CBA. It's his prerogative. ...

"We'll do whatever we can to keep him within the framework of what we feel will not interrupt our team. And you have to be very careful, but we'll do whatever we can."

Souray has long been seen as a slam dunk to hit free agency, especially after Montreal re-signed blue-liner Andrei Markov to a new deal paying him US$5.75 million a year, but Habs GM Bob Gainey says he's not done trying with Souray.

"We still have time, we're still going to work on his possibility," said Gainey. "We both started with the idea that he wanted to stay in Montreal and we'd like to keep him. But that's a basis to start, we have to see if we can finish."

The Wings have some big names that could hit the market next Sunday. Holland had meetings here in Columbus with the agents for Dominik Hasek, Mathieu Schneider, Todd Bertuzzi and Danny Markov - all pending unrestricted free agents.

"Really what I've tried to do is get a sense for what they're thinking of and see if we have enough cap space," said Holland. "...We're not going to be able to fit them all with the cap space that we have left."

Hasek, at the very least, will almost surely be back.

"Obviously I have to get Dom back. Then we're going to decide," said Holland. "We'd like to have Bertuzzi back, we'd like to have Schneider back, certainly Danny Markov played well for us. But again we don't have that kind of cap space."

The trick for the Wings will be to try and convince Bertuzzi to take a big pay cut from the $5.2 million he earned last season. Perhaps convince him to sign a one-year deal full of incentives, lure him with the thought of re-establishing himself as a premier NHL forward that will playing alongside the likes of Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg. If Bertuzzi re-signs, then Holland must decide between Schneider and Markov.

Centre Robert Lang, also an unrestricted free agent, won't be offered a contract and is gone from Detroit.

Not everyone will be busy next Sunday. The Vancouver Canucks, for one, appear willing to sit back and wait.

"I don't expect us to be major players on July 1," said Canucks GM Dave Nonis. "I think July 1 is a very exciting day that's great for the fans, but it's not the best place to build your hockey team. If you can augment your lineup and add a couple players in free agency that's great, but it's becoming increasingly expensive to sign free agents.

"We're not looking to July 1 to solve all of our problems. We'd like to solve a couple if we can through free agency, but I don't see it as a time when we're going to be very, very active."

The Carolina Hurricanes could be busy before July 1. GM Jim Rutherford wants to add a top defenceman and he's been linked to Philadelphia Flyers blue-liner Joni Pitkanen, who's on the trade block.

And don't forget the Edmonton Oilers. GM Kevin Lowe made a lot of noise entering draft week saying he was open for business and felt close on a few fronts as left Columbus. He's looking for both an impact forward and a puck-moving defenceman.



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