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New Jersey Devils star forward Ilya Kovalchuk, of Russia, listens to a reporters question during a news conference in Newark, N.J., Tuesday, July 20, 2010. Kovalchuk is staying with the Devils after agreeing to a staggering 17-year, $102 million deal with the team.

Mel Evans/AP

As the Ilya Kovalchuk saga slogs on into Day 27 with no end in sight, the Russian star has plenty of company in terms of those hoping for a little clarity when it comes to their future in the NHL.

Nearly 100 other free agents, many well down the league's pecking order, are also awaiting their turn to sign, with August fast approaching.

And the waiting game could get painful come September.

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"It's like musical chairs," said veteran agent Rich Curran, who represents as-yet-unsigned winger Alexei Ponikarovsky. "The music will stop and there won't be enough chairs."

Roughly seven weeks from the start of training camps, a quick head count bears that out. Of the 621 players that played 40 or more games in the NHL last season, 84 remain unrestricted free agents - a group that had a collective salary cap hit of $144-million (U.S.) last season.

More than 600 players, meanwhile, are already signed for next season.

Of those still available, forwards are the most plentiful - with Paul Kariya, Alexander Frolov, Maxim Afinogenov, Teemu Selanne, Lee Stempniak, Bill Guerin, Eric Belanger, Brendan Morrison and Ponikarovsky at the top of the list.

On defence, Willie Mitchell, Andy Sutton and Brian Pothier are available, while veteran netminders such as Marty Turco and Jose Theodore - both starters last season - have yet to find even backup roles.

"You're talking about some depth," Belanger's agent, Joe Tacopina, said. "You could make a team out of the free agents that are available - and it'd be a pretty good one."

Of those, Frolov and Belanger are the closest to reaching deals (the New York Rangers are nearing an agreement with Frolov and multiple teams with salary cap room are bidding on Belanger).

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Don Baizley, the agent for Kariya and Selanne, said Monday both veterans had received interest but neither had made a decision on a new deal. Selanne will either return to the Anaheim Ducks for another season or retire, Baizley said, while Kariya has offers but has yet to make a call.

This year, those with choices are the lucky ones.

Unlike past seasons under the salary cap, when the majority of the established free agents signed contracts in the first week of July, this summer has seen a huge number of teams balk at the asking price for second- and third-line players.

In an informal poll Monday, agents around the league agreed the market for depth has eroded to the point where many general managers are unwilling to pay much more than the league minimum ($500,000) for the bottom eight to 10 players on their roster.

"So many teams are taking the position that they're going to pay third- and fourth-line guys $1-million or less," said Tacopina, who is getting calls daily from European clubs hoping to sign NHL-calibre players. "I think we're going to see a watering down of talent in the league if it continues on this path."

One of the holdups this summer has been Kovalchuk, who finally signed a contract with the New Jersey Devils last week, only to have the deal rejected by the NHL the next day. Once his status is finally resolved, many agents said they felt their clients will finally get closer looks from teams waiting out the market.

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On the whole, however, there isn't much left to be spent.

Including Kovalchuk's deal, teams have committed a total of $1.55-billion to salaries for next season, only slightly less than the $1.6-billion spent last season. Because the salary cap rose by $2.6-million per team, it's expected more money will be spent overall. But, as has been the trend since the 2004-05 lockout, up-and-coming players and superstars - like Kovalchuk - have taken home the bulk of available cash.

Curran added that many teams that want to add free agents are burdened with contracts they can't get rid of.

"Some of the mistakes teams have made in the past are catching up with them," he said.

Some agents said this summer may mark the end of free agency as it was previously known, and that, going forward, it will be better for players to sign contracts before July 1 instead of fighting for what's left deep into the off-season.

"It's not as simple as it used to be," Curran said. "All you have to do is add up the number of players available and the number of jobs available and common sense will tell you there will be an issue."

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