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Draft is over - now it's time for NHL GMs to re-sign key players

OTTAWA - Having drafted what they hope are tomorrow's stars, the NHL's 30 general managers now turn their full attention to retaining some of their current ones.

Convincing those players to forgo the July 1 free-agent bonanza is another matter.

"We're all finding out right now that it seems to be hard to sign players," Minnesota Wild GM Doug Risebrough said over the weekend. "And that's probably because the cap has gone up and the expectations have gone up. It seems that everybody is saying, 'I want a one-way ticket to the (free-agent) market."'

Star winger Marian Hossa has already said just that to the Pittsburgh Penguins, forgoing a multi-year offer believed to be worth around US$7 million a year to see what's in store for him on the market.

"We've got to move forward," Penguins GM Ray Shero said. "He was a great fit for our hockey club. We'd love to have him back and I think he knows that and that's what we talked about.

"There aren't many unrestricted guys re-signing right now," added Shero. "Some guys are curious, some guys are still negotiating, and that's OK. He's got to do what's best for him."

Other players will follow suit. Perhaps other Penguins as well.

Winger Ryan Malone and defenceman Brooks Orpik are also unrestricted free agents July 1. Malone, who had a career-high 27 goals last season, could fetch as much as $5 million a year on the open market, probably too rich for a Penguins team trying to re-sign star centre Evgeni Malkin and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury to contract extensions after having done so with superstar Sidney Crosby last summer.

"He's still our property until July 1," Shero said of Malone. "You never say never. We're still sorting out things here. Whatever Ryan Malone does, I don't begrudge him or any of these players if they want to go to July 1. That's certainly their option.

"Ryan's got to do what's best for him and his family. He had a tremendous year for us."

The free-agent market isn't terribly deep in talent this year, a product of many younger players opting for the security of long-terms deals since the end of the lockout. That's a huge bonus to players like Hossa and Malone, who will probably fetch more than their actual worth this summer because the demand will outweigh the supply of Grade A talent.

The salary cap is expected to rise by $5 million to $7 million, not only giving big-market teams more financial capital to dispense but also forcing low-payroll teams to reach the minimum floor under the cap. The cumulative effect is that a lot of teams will be spending.

"We need to add a couple of defencemen, either through free agency or trade," Columbus Blue Jackets GM Scott Howson said in identifying his potential shopping spree. "And we need to add two or three forwards. So that's what we'll be seeking to do, one by one. And we'll be active."

The Montreal Canadiens continue be active in their pursuit of Toronto Maple Leafs captain Mats Sundin, with GM Bob Gainey expected to hold talks with the Swedish star's camp Monday.

One rumour that swept the floors at the entry draft over the weekend is that the Altanta Thrashers would be ready to shell out big bucks if star defenceman Brian Campbell left the San Jose Sharks for free agency.

Thrashers GM Don Waddell would not comment on Campbell but made it clear he's going to spend money on his blue-line.

"We know one thing, we need to try and upgrade our defence," said Waddell. "If we're going to spend money on July 1, the focus is going to be defence. Not that we don't need some forwards, but I want to make sure we take care of our back end first."

Another defenceman available is Wade Redden, who left Ottawa on Sunday for his native Lloydminster, Sask., knowing full well he'll be joining a new team come July.

"We'll see what happens," he said before boarding his flight.

Risebrough, meanwhile, hopes to keep at least one player from going to the market - forward Brian Rolston.

"I've had contract discussions with Rolston," said Risebrough. "We'll have to wait and see. As we get closer to the date it might change."

But it appears centre Pavol Demitra is probaby gone.

"Demitra I haven't talked to," said Risebrough. "I believe there will be a conversation there just because I need to feel out what his expectations are. It's not prudent for the manager to assume."

The Washington Capitals hope to re-sign goalie Cristobal Huet but with just over a week before free agency, it still isn't done.

"We continue to talk," said Caps GM George McPhee. "We'll see where goes in the next week."

He is also negotiating with offensive blue-liner Mike Green, who burst onto the scene last season. He's a restricted free agent and some observers believe he could possibly attract an offer sheet if still unsigned July 1.

Bring it on, said McPhee.

"We'll try to make the best deal we can that makes sense for him and us," said McPhee. "We've got cap room and owners with money so if someone wants to fool around with an offer sheet, it will be matched. We're not going to lose a player."

Standing two feet from McPhee as the entry draft wrapped up Saturday, Detroit Red Wings GM Ken Holland made a similar warning about restricted free-agent centre Valtteri Filppula.

"We obviously have lots of cap space," said Holland. "If there's an offer sheet we've got enough space to match whatever anyone wants to do."

The NHL's money season is just around the corner.


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