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Kings, Ducks in Background

NHL: Cost-conscious area teams don't figure to be involved as bidding for top unrestricted free agents begins today.

July 01, 2002|LONNIE WHITE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sooner or later, the NHL's top free agents are going to figure out that Southern California is the place to be and that it's cool to play for less money because of the region's favorable weather and atmosphere.

At least that's what the Kings and Mighty Ducks are hoping.

Just don't expect it to happen this summer, especially with a potential work stoppage looming when the collective bargaining agreement expires in two years.

This summer's crop of free agents may not catch your eye right away, but when you take a second look, there are plenty of players who could make a difference between winning and losing for many teams next season.

Barring any late deals, forwards Bill Guerin, Tony Amonte, Teemu Selanne and Bobby Holik, goaltenders Curtis Joseph, Ed Belfour, Byron Dafoe and Mike Richter, along with defenseman Darius Kasparaitis, head the list of players who become unrestricted free agents today.

Defenseman Bret Hedican could have joined them but chose instead to re-sign Sunday with the Carolina Hurricanes for an estimated $18 million over six years.

The Kings and Ducks aren't expected to be pursuing the top players because neither wants to get into a bidding war against such big-money teams as the New York Rangers, Detroit Red Wings, Colorado Avalanche and Dallas Stars.

The Kings' biggest splash of the summer probably came when they exercised their option on goalie Felix Potvin last week.

The Kings also exercised the buyout provision on Nelson Emerson's contract, making the veteran forward an unrestricted free agent.

Emerson, who will turn 35 on Aug. 17, was slowed by post-concussion syndrome last season, playing in a career-low 41 games and contributing a career-low seven points, and was due to be paid $2 million next season. His career totals include 195 goals and 488 points in 771 games.

Also unrestricted free agents today after failing to reach terms with the Kings are defenseman Philippe Boucher, 29, and winger Kelly Buchberger, 35.

Paul Kariya is a restricted free agent, meaning the Ducks could lose him only if they don't match any contract offer he signs with another team.

In previous years, restricted free agents have not received much attention. With NHL rules calling for five first-round draft picks as compensation--as long as a team's payroll isn't too high--most teams have usually decided that the price for available talent was too steep.

This summer may be different. There's a strong core of players who may be worth the price because of their youth. Scoring champion Jarome Iginla, who may be too costly for the cash-strapped Calgary Flames, Hart Trophy winner Jose Theodore of Montreal, the league's top young goalie, and Kariya are considered franchise players who are restricted free agents.

The Kings and Ducks are likely to give most of their attention to free agents who may not demand top dollar but will have plenty of competition for their services.

The King would love to re-sign Boucher, unless the Stars beat them to him.

Boucher is expected to be in demand because of his affordability, but the Stars' free-spending owner Tom Hicks is expected to drive up the price for many mid-range free agents.

Hicks not only has his sights set on big-time free agents such as Guerin, Holik and Amonte, but he also has eyes for such players as Boucher, Pittsburgh's Robert Lang, Vancouver's Andrew Cassels, St. Louis' Scott Young and Dallas' Randy McKay.

Iginla's situation will be followed closely. The Flames need Iginla and in some ways, so does Canada. If Iginla remains with small-market Calgary, Canadian fans will proclaim a huge victory in keeping one of the league's top stars home.

But if Iginla signs an astronomical deal with a team like the Rangers or Red Wings, there will be complaints that there's no way a non-U.S. team can truly compete for the Stanley Cup. The complaints won't just be heard in Calgary but also in Edmonton, Ottawa and Vancouver.

Iginla and the Flames wanted to reach a deal before today. Both sides still hope that an extension can be finalized, but things will start to get heated if it's not done before late August because that's when Iginla said he'll start to feel pressure.

Another player to watch is Joseph, who turned down an offer from Toronto. The Maple Leafs, ineligible to receive a compensatory pick because of their high payroll, traded his rights to Calgary for a 2004 conditional draft pick.

The Red Wings, who lost Dominik Hasek to retirement, are interested in Joseph but may not be willing to pay his asking price. Joseph could end up with the Rangers, who traded Richter's rights to Edmonton for an undisclosed draft pick late Sunday.

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Staff writer Jerry Crowe contributed to this report.

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