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San Jose Sharks goalie Evgeni Nabokov watches the puck sail past his glove against the Colorado Avalanche during the second period of Game 1 of their NHL Western Conference quarter-final hockey game in San Jose, California April 14, 2010. (ROBERT GALBRAITH/REUTERS)
San Jose Sharks goalie Evgeni Nabokov watches the puck sail past his glove against the Colorado Avalanche during the second period of Game 1 of their NHL Western Conference quarter-final hockey game in San Jose, California April 14, 2010. (ROBERT GALBRAITH/REUTERS)

ERIC DUHATSCHEK

What will happen with free agents is anybody's guess Add to ...

The NHL's 2010 free-agent season opens Thursday and nobody - not even the principal players themselves - knows exactly what to expect from the auction this year.

Will it be the usual dizzying frenzy - too many teams throwing too much money at a handful of NHLers, creating the next generation of overpaid players? Or will sanity finally prevail, on the grounds that the free-agent crop is one of the weakest since the 2004-05 lockout ended, and thus, there are just fewer good options to throw cash at?

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"I never know what to expect in free agency - will people blow their brains out, or be smart?" Washington Capitals general manager George McPhee said. "Because you get five desperate teams every year and they do desperate things. You're almost always better off sitting back and being smart about it. Almost all of us have experienced that signing where you sign the guy and six months later, you're going, 'Why did we do that?' So … I don't know what's going to happen."

When the San Jose Sharks re-signed former captain Patrick Marleau last week, it left available just one prominent scorer, Ilya Kovalchuk, most recently of the New Jersey Devils. With so many teams limited in how much they can spend, the thinking is that Kovalchuk will earn far less than the $100-million (all currency U.S.) package he turned down from the Atlanta Thrashers in March, if he wants to stay in the NHL. And most people believe he does - that the threat of going to the Continental Hockey League in Russia is largely a bargaining ploy, and that after eight years in the NHL, his family is rooted in North America and wants to stay, preferably in a major market - namely the Los Angeles Kings.

The defensive crop isn't bad either and includes five attractive commodities, some better known than others, but all of whom will field multiple offers and land decent contracts: Paul Martin, Anton Volchenkov, Zbynek Michalek, plus two players currently the property of the Pittsburgh Penguins: Dan Hamhuis and Sergei Gonchar.

Goaltending will be another matter altogether. With just three teams - the Philadelphia Flyers, Sharks and Tampa Bay Lightning - realistically in the market for a No. 1, many of the free-agent goalies are going to have a hard time finding work. The expectation is that the soon-to-be ex-Sharks starter Evgeni Nabokov will land in Philly, the soon-to-be-ex Dallas Stars starter Marty Turco will land in San Jose, and the Lightning will continue to search for a bargain, possibly settling on the soon-to-be-ex St. Louis Blues starter Chris Mason.

Over all, agents and general managers alike believe that players coming up for free agency this year could be squeezed more than in previous years because there are so many signed players out there that teams are trying to deal - and sometimes even give away. In theory, the day of reckoning for all that profligate spending is finally upon us.

"More and more teams are committed to more and more players the deeper you get into the [collective agreement]cycle," Carolina Hurricanes GM Jimmy Rutherford said. "There are also a lot of teams committed to their own self-imposed budgets.

"It means the top three-to-five guys are still going to get their money, same as always, but it might get a little tight after that. The players will get their deals, but it might not be what they think it will be."

The Hurricanes have a No. 1 goalie in Cam Ward and are planning to use Justin Peters as a backup. However, that could change depending upon who might be looking for work in September - and at what price they're prepared to play for.

Rutherford said he's never quite seen a goalie glut like this one and predicted, "Teams will keep their options open. We've got a good, young goalie in Peters coming, but come September, there's going to be some available. There's not going to be enough chairs for all these guys.

"So there are going to be goalies who are going to have to play for $600,000 or $700,000, when they thought they were going to get a lot more - and some good ones. I would suspect not only us but a few other teams will keep that door open."

According to Blues president John Davidson, the free-agent market will be driven by the NHL's big spenders, provided they can make room under the new $59.4-million salary cap to open up the purse strings again.

"Fewer teams have the room to spend," Davidson said. "The cap goes up every year, but people's budgets don't necessarily follow suit. When we came out of the lockout, the cap was at $39-million. Now, it's almost $60-million. If every team goes to $60-million, what will that mean for ticket prices and is that fair to the fans?

"Each team has to set its budget and then you go to work. Drafting and development is how a lot of teams are going to build their organizations and we're one of them. Youth, development, teaching, building - I think it's healthy, as long as we can keep the players, once they start getting good. That's your biggest issue."

Follow on Twitter: @eduhatschek

 

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