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Briere camp tells Sabres he's headed to free agency; Smyth anxious for Sunday

The Hockey News

The Hockey News

"It's exciting. You don't get the chance to be in this situation very often in your career," Briere told The Canadian Press on Friday. "So that's the mindset that we have going into Sunday. Just realizing that hopefully some teams or a team will be interested in my services."

The Sabres, it's believed, offered Briere a five-year deal worth around US$25 million this week, which wasn't a raise over the $5 million he earned this past season while putting up a career-high 95 points (32-63) in 81 games. Briere's agent Pat Brisson told the Sabres they would try out free agency.

"We've decided we've come this far so we're going to hit the free-agent market," said Brisson. "There's no animosity with Buffalo, we just feel with free agency 48 hours away it's an exciting opportunity and Daniel and I have decided to go ahead and see what's out there.

"That doesn't mean we've closed the door on the Sabres."

It was also reported that Sabres teammate and fellow star centre Chris Drury also turned down a long-term offer from the NHL club this week but his agent Mark Witkin would not comment nor confirm that when reached Friday.

Either way, it appears both Drury and Briere might be available to the highest bidder come Sunday. Both players are currently in the Los Angeles area, Briere having flown in Thursday to bunker down in Brisson's CAA office.

"On the one hand, you are a little scared that you're going to hit free agency and nobody is going to call you," said Briere. "But it's still pretty exciting. From hearing all the rumours, there should be more than one or two teams interested, so that's why it's exciting."

The most coveted winger will be Ryan Smyth.

Captain Canada is in B.C. at his summer place and will await a call from his agent Don Meehan.

"It's been a lot of restless nights, deciding the future for the family and myself," said Smyth. "I know we're in good hands with Donnie and Newport Sports. We're just taking it all in right now and we'll see how things go on Sunday."

Smyth's name tops the list of nearly a dozen teams.

"Obviously it's flattering, but we'll just see how things pan out Sunday," said Smyth.

His current team, the New York Islanders, haven't given up trying to re-sign him either.

"I have a great deal of respect for them, no question," said Smyth. "They own my rights right now, they treated us well right from the get-go. So we'll see how things go."

Two players removed their names from the unrestricted free-agent market Friday. Forward Jozef Stumpel signed a $4.5-million, two-year deal to stay with the Florida Panthers while the Los Angeles Kings re-signed veteran blue-liner Jaroslav Modry to a $1.2-million, one-year contract.

But there's plenty left.

Smyth, Drury and Briere join a free-agent group is slated to also include centres Scott Gomez, Michael Nylander, Michal Handzus, Robert Lang, Mike Comrie, Jason Allison and Alexei Yashin, among others, as well as wingers Paul Kariya, Ladislav Nagy, Slava Kozlov, Jason Blake, Todd Bertuzzi, Petr Sykora, Bill Guerin and Dainius Zubrus and defencemen Sheldon Souray, Brian Rafalski, Scott Hannan, Brad Stuart, Mathieu Schneider and Roman Hamrlik.

The question is, just how much insanity will the NHL see Sunday?

"I think you only have to look to the past practice to say there's a better chance there will be (insanity) than won't be," said Dallas Stars GM Doug Armstrong.

With the salary cap officially jumping up from $44 million to $50.3 million on Friday, it gives NHL GMs even more to spend on the higher-end free agents. The likes of Briere, Drury and Gomez were initially thought to be in the $5 million to $6 million range for most of the season.

Now the gossip has them hitting more than $7 million. The market will bear out the truth come Sunday.

"I think that I have to give agents credit," said Armstrong. "What they do is that they throw out numbers early enough and then they become a reality to some people. I'm only basing it on what I'm reading in the newspapers, but those numbers seem a lot higher than what anybody would have predicted in March.

"But we'll see if they're able to cash in on that."

As for the Stars, Armstrong has a plan - although he obviously wouldn't get into specifics.

"There's certain players that we have targeted and we want to call and gauge their interest," he said. "I think a lot of it, at least the history that I've seen, that first wave of players will go in the first 48 hours and they'll be probably more expensive than we thought they were going to be maybe eight weeks ago.

"And then there will be that second wave and I think we're going to be a team that would like to get into that secondary wave and I think there's going to be some very good players and hopefully they believe Dallas is a place where not only they can make their money but have a chance to win."

With so much focus on Drury and Briere, it's easy to forget Zubrus may also leave the Sabres. He had a strong playoff and will garner much attention on the market.

"I think he's at the perfect stage of his career to be hitting the market," said his agent Jerrold Colton. "Based on his age (29), his health, as well as his productivity and versatility, I just think there couldn't be a better time for him in that regard."

Some free agents will fly under the radar, such as Allison, who hopes to entice some GMs after taking a year off to take care of some personal issues. The 32-year-old centre told CP on Friday that he wants to come back next season.

"I think last year was important for me to take the time get myself sorted out and get myself happy," said Allison. "I'm real excited now."

Then there's Yashin, the much-maligned Russian centre bought out by the Islanders. Some team will surely give him a chance.

"We've talked to a number of teams," said his agent Mark Gandler. "And most of these teams want to talk in the beginning of July after they've seen the landscape."


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