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Friday, August 12, 2005
Ultra-specific needs make these signings complex

By Scott Burnside
Special to ESPN.com

Slowly but surely, the ranks of Team Leftover are dwindling.

Eric Lindros bolted from the land of the uncertain for the land of the never-ending hockey season in Toronto on Thursday afternoon. Earlier in the day, two-time Cup-winning defenseman Brad Lukowich got the call at his offseason home in Dallas that the Islanders had arranged to pay for his services.

Still, the two leave behind some 240 unrestricted free agents wondering where and when they might find new homes, or whether they will find them at all.

"I'm not really nervous. I'm more anxious and excited," Lukowich said a day before he signed a two-year deal with the Isles. "I'll let my agent do the worrying."

It seems like months rather than days since the unrestricted free-agent market opened with the immediate signing of veteran Cup winners Joe Nieuwendyk and Gary Roberts by the Florida Panthers.

Over the next week, a blur of deals saw some of the top names in the game crisscrossing the hockey map, with Adam Foote landing in Columbus, Peter Forsberg in Philadelphia, Scott Niedermayer in Anaheim, Ziggy Palffy and Sergei Gonchar in Pittsburgh, Nikolai Khabibulin and Adrian Aucoin in Chicago, Brian Leetch and Glen Murray in Boston, and so on and so on. Then, as though exhaling as one, the NHL's general managers quickly turned their attention to dealing with restricted free agents as the shape and tenor and personality of teams began to come fully into focus.

"We knew the big guys were going to get taken care of first. As they should. And it just kind of trickles down from there," Lukowich said.

The demarcation between the best and the rest has been stark, and it vividly illuminates the new NHL landscape.

Lindros, a Hart Trophy winner and league scoring champion who once commanded a salary of $8 million annually, will play for $1.55 million in Toronto. He is essentially the team's third-line center behind captain Mats Sundin and another bargain reclamation project, Jason Allison.

If that is Lindros' value, what then of other Leftover forwards like Alexander Mogilny, Teemu Selanne, Mark Messier, Scott Young (who once scored 40 goals), Vincent Damphousse, Peter Bondra, John LeClair (Lindros' former linemate on the Legion of Doom) and faceoff expert Yanic Perreault?

If Lukowich is worth $1 million in the first year of his deal to the Isles, what then of former Islander Roman Hamrlik? Or Glen Wesley, Jason Woolley, Jiri Slegr or Anders Eriksson?

With netminder Sean Burke safely ensconced in Tampa and Jocelyn Thibault squeezed from Chicago to Pittsburgh, what is Curtis Joseph's value? Or that of Steve Shields? Felix Potvin? Byron Dafoe?

"It's all over the map," said Carlos Sosa, who represents Lukowich, among others. "The marketplace is almost situationally specific."

That is, each player represents a unique set of circumstances, and those circumstances might change from team to team based on that team's own unique needs and restrictions.

Certainly for the esteemed members of the Leftover squad, the new NHL means having an open mind, in terms of both geography and finance.

"To get the price they want, they may have to go somewhere they don't want to go," Sosa said.

In presalary-cap days, squeezing an extra $100,000 or $200,000 out of a team wasn't a problem.

"But to bend and stretch over a $100,000 or $200,000 now is problematic," said veteran agent Ritch Winter, who this week helped Jan Hrdina land in Columbus, but still has Team Leftover stars Hamrlik, Bondra and Eriksson, along with Michal Rozsival, to deal with. "You have to be aware of the market, and you have to be concerned about it. The only ones who are not concerned about it have to be in a coma."

In some ways, this free-agent scenario is repeated every year. There is a rush to sign the top-level free agents, then there is a settling period during which GMs take stock of their needs and their budgets, then try to round out their rosters with a good fit from the rest.

This summer, though, GMs have been engaged in a frantic game of build a team overnight. Instead of having more than two months to sort through the free-agency marketplace, the market opened on Aug. 1 this year, and since the announcement of a tentative end to the 10-month lockout, GMs have been running pretty much around the clock.

With each movement, a GM must keep one eye on the ever-present salary cap and another on the clock as training camps will open on or about Sept. 12. Most teams have rookie camps the week before that.

Adding another element of uncertainty for those free agents biding their time in the shadows is the fact that with many young players getting a full year of seasoning at the AHL level during the lockout, the competition for roster spots will be even fiercer than normal.

"It's an interesting group," Carolina GM Jim Rutherford said of those remaining unrestricted free agents. "The question is how do they respond to a different role on a different team."

For instance, Bondra has scored 30 or more goals nine times in his distinguished career. It's believed the Atlanta Thrashers are interested, but with a forward corps in Atlanta that includes Ilya Kovalchuk, Dany Heatley, Marc Savard, Bobby Holik and Slava Kozlov, Bondra's role might be different than the one he played during his prime in Washington.

Beyond whether a player will fit in with a specific team, another question facing GMs is how these players fit in with rule changes the NHL hopes will make the game more fluid and fast-paced.

San Jose GM Doug Wilson said he is predisposed to giving a young player from within the Sharks' system a shot at a roster spot before bringing in outside help, reinforcing the message that hard work on the farm does get rewarded.

That said, the Sharks made a concerted effort to land top free-agent defenseman Niedermayer, and Wilson will continue to look for players who might fit with what promises to be a Western Conference contender.

"We don't give anybody a job just by default," Wilson said. "You have players that are trending up and you have players that are trending down."

For many of Team Leftover, players like LeClair, that isn't a positive trend.

Still, not every team has the depth of young talent the Sharks possess, and Rutherford thinks most of the regular NHLers in this large free-agent pool will find work before the puck drops.

"Those players are still going to find homes. There're still good players out there," he said.

Rutherford finds it amusing that many observers have quickly assessed teams' moves and assigned them a passing or failing grade weeks before skates touch the ice.

"We're still in the first 25 laps," Rutherford said. "We're very early in the race."

All of which is music to the ears of the members of Team Leftover.

Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.