Friday June 27th, 2008

Here are four key figures to keep in mind as the NHL's silly season officially commences on July 1:

56.7 --The number of dollars, in millions, that teams will be allowed to spend under next season's salary cap.

6.4 -- Dollars, in millions, that the cap has escalated since last season.

40.7-- Minimum dollars, in millions, that teams at must spend.

100 -- Number of years that le Club de Hockey Canadien will have been in existence.

All four will be big players as teams decide which players, if any, they'll pursue in free agency. But above all, keep that last figure in mind. It could be the one that determines how the rest of the chips fall beginning Tuesday at noon.

The Habs revere their history more than any other team in the NHL, and justifiably so. Given the chance to commemorate a milestone like a centennial, you know they're going to go big. They've already got the All-Star Game and the Entry Draft set for the Bell Centre in 2009, but those events pale next to their most important pursuit. The Canadiens are very, very serious about competing for a 25th Stanley Cup to make the most of their centennial, and that means a big free agent splash is part of the plan.

In the aftermath of the offensive meltdown that derailed this season's playoff run, GM Bob Gainey said he wanted to add an impact forward. Alex Tanguay was acquired from Calgary at the draft, and he'll play a big role in their top six. But Tanguay's more of a complementary piece than the sort of gamebreaker Gainey covets.

That's why the Habs arranged a contingency deal with the Maple Leafs for exclusive negotiating rights to impending free agent Mats Sundin. The big center would be an ideal fit, adding size, experience and reliability to a forward group that could use all three elements. He led the Leafs with 76 points last season, and hasn't scored less than 72 in the last dozen years.

But Sundin, about to sign his last pro contract, is going to play it smart and wait until after July 1 to consider his options. That means the Leafs could come up empty-handed -- assuming Sundin doesn't shock everyone by re-signing in Toronto -- but not necessarily the Canadiens. Could be he finds them the best fit after taking stock of his situation, although Detroit and the New York Rangers could make otherwise compelling cases.

Sundin's agent approached the Leafs about giving the Rangers early negotiating rights (the request was denied, but it speaks loudly about his interest in the team), and the Wings seem like an ideal fit for a Swedish player looking for something good short term.

If it's not Sundin, Gainey will find another way to improve the Habs. Even after adding Tanguay's $5.25 million salary, their cap hit is in the vicinity of $42 million for 16 players. That leaves plenty of room to fill out the roster, even after the addition of a top-end player at $7-8 million. Marian Hossa is a possibility if Sundin turns them down, but there's a sense that he's not keen on Montreal because of the obstacles that come with moving to Quebec, including the league's highest tax rate.

Barring either of those two, it wouldn't be surprising to see the Habs add a less flashy, but still useful forward like Brian Rolston or Andrew Brunette.

Who else is in a shopping mood? A short-term acquisition like Sundin makes ideal sense for the Wings. Although they have almost $16 million to spend next year, they can't afford to be tied down by a deal like the one Hossa is said to be seeking. Detroit has both Henrik Zetterberg and Johan Franzen entering the final seasons of their contracts, and they'll be looking for eye-popping raises. It's also thought that Detroit would like to keep space open for next summer, when Buffalo's Ryan Miller could be available to take over as their starting netminder. Rolston, a defensive whiz who could chip in 25-30 goals, is another interesting option for the Motowners.

Boston GM Peter Chiarelli told a group of reporters during a conference call this week that he intends to be a player on Tuesday. While Hossa would certainly address the team's woeful scoring, the smart money says the B's have their eyes on defender Brian Campbell. The Bruins are one of three teams (the others are believed to be Ottawa and the Rangers) who have been given permission by the Sharks to speak to him in advance.

But it'll require a neat trick for Boston to take on the kind of salary, upwards of $6 million per on a long-term basis, that Campbell would demand. The B's already have nearly $50 million in commitments next season and have yet to re-sign key defenseman Dennis Wideman, who should win an award in the neighborhood of $3.5 million when he goes to arbitration next month. But by choosing arbitration, Wideman did his team a favor. The Bruins now don't have to worry about clearing cap room for a big signing until 48 hours after the arbitrator's decision is rendered, possibly as late as Aug. 4. And that means not having to rush a tough decision on trades (or more likely, buyouts) for veterans Glen Murray and/or Manny Fernandez.

The Blackhawks are another team with plenty of cap room that could be in pursuit of Hossa and Campbell, with Mark Steit or Ron Hainsey as fallbacks. Any of the three defenders would address the team's overriding need for a transition specialist, but signing one of the first two would be ideal. Convincing either of the marquee UFAs to jump on board would further the steady efforts of the franchise to regain the luster it lost over the past 15 years

Looking for darkhorse free-spenders? Keep an eye on the Thrashers, Blue Jackets and Islanders. All three appear to have massive cap space (anywhere from $15-$20 million), and while they don't offer the competitive advantage that some UFAs will require, their ability to throw mountains of cash may cover up their shortcomings. Plus, all three teams will need to make some additions in order to hit that $40.7 million salary floor.

And while all this is going on, several teams need to address their own restricted free agents or risk exposing them to the type of offer sheets to that led to Dustin Penner's signing with the Oilers last summer.

The most noteworthy target could be Anaheim's Corey Perry. It's thought he will re-sign shortly after July 1, but the Ducks are especially vulnerable now that Scott Niedermayer is returning for his final season. Although the decision to waive winger Todd Bertuzzi could lead to cap relief ($2.6 million if he's bought out or $4 million in the event he's claimed by another team), they may yet be forced to move another veteran salary in order to get the young cornerstone re-signed.

Other notable RFAs include Pascal Leclaire and R.J. Umberger of the Blue Jackets, Andrei Kostitsyn of the Canadiens, Minnesota's Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Detroit's Valtteri Filppula and Washington's Mike Green. All seem likely to re-sign, but the offer sheet horse is out of the barn. If a team fails to make its mark with a UFA, any of these young stars could come into play.

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