McKenzie: Top free agents still waiting for the right fit

Bob McKenzie
11/26/2008 11:57:38 AM
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By any calendar you care to use, Brendan Shanahan should have been playing in the NHL by now.
It's been almost a month since it became apparent to the unrestricted free agent Shanahan that the door to the New York Rangers, that he thought was going to swing open, was closed once and for all, at which time he instructed his agent to begin looking elsewhere.
So what's the hold up now?
It's fairly elementary.
The only firm and immediately available contract offers Shanahan has - that is, from teams who have the cap space to sign him today if he would agree - are from clubs in the Western Conference, including the St. Louis Blues.
And while Shanahan is eager to play again, his preference is still to play in the Eastern Conference, the closer to his home in New York the better.
While there are some eastern conference teams that are seriously interested in Shanahan, they would have to make deals or clear cap space or get permission from ownership to increase the budget and the truth of the matter is those things are not easily done in today's game.
So while Shanahan realizes he may have no other choice at some point but to play in the West if he wants to play, he has not yet exhausted all his Eastern Conference possibilities and if it means waiting an extra day or week or whatever to get the right fit closer to home, that apparently is the route he is going to take.

On the subject of clearing cap space, it's going to be interesting to see how that plays out in the Mats Sundin Sweepstakes that should heat up at month's end when agent J.P. Barry and Sundin begin to whittle down the 10-plus teams that have shown varying degrees to interest to get it down to two or three finalists for perhaps a mid-December decision and return to the NHL.
At this moment, of the teams that have either shown interest in Sundin or appear to be a possible landing spot, there are probably only two that have cap space available to do the deal without making other moves.
One is the Vancouver Canucks. The other is the Toronto Maple Leafs.
And the Canucks may have the decided advantage of having already offered Sundin $10 million a year on a two year deal while Toronto, with Brian Burke set to take over and commence with a full-fledged re-build, is a lot less likely to be wanting Sundin or Sundin wanting what's in store there.
The New York Rangers, Ottawa Senators, Montreal Canadiens, Chicago Blackhawks, Philadelphia Flyers and Tampa Bay Lightning - the teams who at one time or another have indicated an interest in the Big Swede - need to make trades or bury NHL contracts in the minors if they're going to create room for Sundin.
That isn't to say those teams couldn't do that. But as the Shanahan situation shows, "clearing cap space" is easier said than done for teams in mid-season.
I don't know if, for that reason, Vancouver has a huge leg up on every other team because Sundin will dictate how much cap space needs to be cleared.
Maybe he'll play for $2 million in the place of his choice, if that's the amount that the club he wants to go to can afford to pay him. Or maybe he'll take the money, all $10 million per year, and run in Vancouver and play on a team that is performing well in the Western Conference and also happens to be home to the 2010 Winter Olympics which, if Sundin took the Canuck offer, could be his swan song season in the NHL.
No sense trying to guess - there is a sense the Rangers and Canucks are leading contenders, for what that speculation is worth - but unless Sundin is looking to regain his amateur status and play for peanuts, salary cap manipulation for a lot of his would-be suitors may not be as easy as they or we have been making it out to be.
NOTES - The Buffalo Sabres are trying hard to move Maxim Afinogenov but there's not much of a market right now for an underachieving and healthy scratch winger making $3.5 million with a $3.33 million cap hit…Don't be surprised if the New York Islanders keep underage centre Josh Bailey for the balance of the NHL regular season. Bailey has been playing well of late - he's a pre-eminent playmaker - and Isles' coach Scott Gordon would rather keep the kid under his wing this season and teach him to be a pro than return him to junior. The final call rests with Isles' ownership and management but the sense seems to be that as long as Bailey is playing, and contributing, there's no point is returning him to the OHL powerhouse Windsor Spitfires. That can always change, but if I were Bob Boughner and Warren Rychel in Windsor, I wouldn't be holding my breath, that's for sure.

Bob McKenzie


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