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Lots of goalies -- and not much else -- available in NHL free agency

The Hockey News

The Hockey News

Chris Mason is just as curious as any hockey fan to see what will happen when the NHL free agency period opens Thursday.

The 34-year-old goaltender finds himself with more control over his future than he's had in the past. Once the window opens at noon ET, his agent Tom Laidlaw can start negotiating with NHL teams.

"It's a little unsettling," Mason said Wednesday from his home in Red Deer, Alta. "This is the first time I've been through something like this. But I'm really excited to see what's going to happen."

Mason has a lot in common with many of the other notable names that are about to hit the open market—he's a veteran player with a solid track record who gets paid to stop pucks.

This year's free agent class features six goalies who had 20 or more victories last season: Evgeni Nabokov (44), Mason (30), Jose Theodore (30), Marty Turco (22), Johan Hedberg and Antero Nittymarki (21 apiece).

There is also a large secondary group of experienced backup candidates, which means goalie jobs will be at an even higher premium than normal. Naturally, Mason has gone through various scenarios in his head about how July 1 could play out.

"San Jose might be looking for a guy, Philadelphia, Tampa Bay, maybe Atlanta," he said.

The Flyers ended up making a significant signing on the eve of free agency, agreeing to a US$3.1-million, two-year deal with Michael Leighton on Wednesday.

Mason earned $3 million last season while playing for the St. Louis Blues and had hoped to remain with the organization. He was in negotiations on an extension when Jaroslav Halak was acquired from Montreal in a trade.

"I thought we were on the way to a deal but I understand it's a business," said Mason.

The opening of free agency has typically been a big business day for NHL general managers, but the prevailing winds seem to have shifted slightly this time around. A number of skilled players with big contracts were being offered during last week's draft and none of them were moved in a trade.

With teams seemingly exercising more restraint—either because of the US$59.4-million salary cap or internal budgets—there's likely to be less money thrown around Thursday.

One player almost certain to cash in is Ilya Kovalchuk, the biggest name on the market. The flashy winger turned down a $100-million extension from Atlanta in February before being shipped to the New Jersey Devils.

Will anyone throw that kind of money his way now?

Kovalchuk's 41 goals are 13 more than any other pending unrestricted free agent scored (Lee Stempniak had 28). Teams looking for offence will also look at Ray Whitney, Matthew Lombardi, Maxim Afinogenov, Alexander Frolov, Olli Jokinen, Paul Kariya and Bill Guerin.

On defence, the two most intriguing names were each property of the Pittsburgh Penguins heading into free agency. The representatives for Sergei Gonchar and Dan Hamhuis, whose rights changed hands twice after the season, both had negotiations with GM Ray Shero but each player appeared ready to test the open waters.

If that happens, they'll each attract significant interest. Blue-liners Paul Martin, Anton Volchenkov, Zbynek Michalek, Willie Mitchell and Pavel Kubina are among the other options available to interested teams.

GMs in the market for a goaltender will have the deepest pool to choose from.

The main thing on Mason's personal wishlist is landing with a contender. After playing for Nashville and St. Louis, he hopes to join a team that's "a little farther along in its development."

On a personal level, he also looks forward to having his immediate future cleared up.

"All of our stuff is sitting in storage (in St. Louis)," said Mason. "Sometimes people look at you thinking you make millions of dollars playing in the NHL and don't realize it's not easy not knowing where you're going to live.

"But I really can't complain. I love playing in the NHL and want to continue doing so and this is one of the things that comes with it."


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