Once Toronto Maple Leafs general manager John Ferguson gets Mats Sundin signed, before the June 15 deadline to pick up the option on Sundin's contract, and then gets himself signed to a contract extension by the end of the month, he will set his sights on a more important signing, at least as far as the team's immediate future is concerned. Ferguson's No. 1 target on the free-agent market, according to those who know him best, is winger Ryan Smyth. Then again, you could say this about every GM in the National Hockey League with a minimum of $6-million (all figures U.S.) per year to spend. There are four top-end forwards among the pending free agents - Smyth and centres Chris Drury, Daniel Briere and Scott Gomez. Given Smyth's pedigree as a gritty character player who can score, he will be the object of the fiercest bidding war. Certainly, it was the thought of keeping Smyth plus another potential free agent, Jason Blake, that played a large part in the New York Islanders' decision to buy out Alexei Yashin of the last four years of his contract. There is little chance Smyth will sign with the team that traded for him at the deadline last season, but the Islanders would have had no chance if they kept Yashin, long the most egregious underachiever in the league. Ferguson's problem is that Smyth is going to have his pick of teams. At 31, he will want the best chance to win a Stanley Cup plus get richer, so a guy who runs a team with a 36-year-old as the best player plus a mediocre offence and mediocre goaltending will have quite a selling job ahead of him. If Ferguson does miss out on Smyth, which will not be a shock, he will still have problems with any consolation prize. The problem with the NHL's free-agent market is that the losers of the big prize often turn around and bid up the price on the lesser prizes to ridiculous levels. You don't think Ferguson actually wanted to pay $5-million for defenceman Pavel Kubina do you? He had numbers between $3.5-million and $4-million in mind but needed an experienced defenceman and the bidding war last summer put Kubina at $5-million in a big hurry. The same thing will probably happen to Drury, Briere and Gomez or even Smyth, depending on which one goes first. Ferguson is getting a little antsy with his bosses. When his plan for next season was accepted by the board of directors at Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, Ferguson and his new agent, Gil Scott, were told to expect "something positive" in the way of a contract extension. Things have been mostly silent since then, although Ferguson was assured an extension will be in place by the end of June. It probably will not be the five-year one he'd like, but something along the line of two years tacked on to the one year he has left on his current deal, which pays $850,000 a year.
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