The Sergei Zubov mystery and other intriguing players

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He's exactly what every NHL team needs: a veteran defender with years of experience in the No. 1 role; a silky smooth skater, as adept at leading the rush as he is capable of racing back to break up an enemy attack; a quick-thinking, no-panic puckhandler who delivers that first pass as well as anyone in the game today; a special teams threat who can QB a power play and chew up minutes on the penalty kill.

And, given a chance, he'll probably work for pennies on the dollar.

So how is it exactly that Sergei Zubov is an unsigned free agent on July 17?

To borrow the memorable phrasing of former American defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Zubov lingers on the market because he is a known unknown. Which is to say all anyone is sure of is that they have no idea what he has to offer.

No one questions Zubov's talent. The question is whether he can utilize it. Surgery on a sports hernia and a hip limited the defender, who turns 39 next week, to 56 games over the past two seasons with the Dallas Stars; just 10 of them in 2008-09. He last played on November 28, and while doctors have said he'll be ready to go for the upcoming season, they have in the past erred on the side of optimism with Zubov.

Still, in a league where Claude Lemieux found gainful employment after four years spent cashing pension checks, you know there are going to be some tire-kickers. Considering what Zubov might bring to the table, there should be 30 of them, but his agent, Jay Grossman, says nine teams have expressed interest. The Bruins (cap issues be damned), Rangers, Devils, Blue Jackets (where former coach Ken Hitchcock could really use Zubov's help on the PP) and Blues are thought to be among them. But none have yet been willing to pull the trigger.

The thinking appears to be that if the team that's most closely monitoring the situation hasn't dipped a toe in the water (the Stars have yet to even discuss a contract, according to GM Joe Nieuwendyk), then maybe caution is the prudent course of action. There are still nearly two months to go before camps open, after all. That's time for Zubov to heal, and time for teams to get a better handle on his progress.

If the right NHL deal doesn't materialize, Zubov told Sovietsky Sport that the KHL remains an option. "The most important thing for me is to show that I can still play hockey," he said. "If I can do it with a good team, then it doesn't matter if I am playing for the Stanley Cup or the Gagarin Cup."

It's smart to maintain the deepest possible pool of bidders, but don't take that quote at face value. Zubov has yet to receive any offers from the KHL. He may come at some point, but honestly, it'd be a surprise if the naturalized American returned home to finish his career. All things being equal, he'd probably prefer to stay in Dallas, his home for the last dozen seasons after he was stolen from the Pittsburgh Penguins (wherefore art thou, Kevin Hatcher?). He's comfortable there, both with the city and his teammates. And though he's never said as much, Zubov probably feels a certain obligation to a franchise that's paid him more than $10 million while he's missed more than 100 games over the past two years.

But would he take something in the neighborhood of Jere Lehtinen's new $1.5 million discount deal out of that sense of obligation? Probably not. And honestly, that's just as well for a Dallas team that should be committing fully to the development process of a promising, but very raw, corps of young blueliners.

Is the door completely shut? No. But it's a good bet that Zubov will be wearing a new sweater come October. He won't get much in the way of term elsewhere --two years, tops -- but he'll probably find someone willing to lay out something like $3 million per as the summer draws to a close. That's a clip off his 2008-09 salary of $5.35 million, but still a sizable risk on the part of his new team.

Of course, if he returns to his 2006-07 form, Zubov could turn out to be the most impactful signing of the summer.

The Stars might have made one of the most important, albeit least heralded, moves of the off-season by sending a sixth-rounder to the Senators for goalie Alex Auld. The veteran stopper gives new coach Marc Crawford something that the departed Dave Tippett lacked for the past couple seasons: a reliable option to spell Marty Turco between the pipes.

A comfortable Turco -- the version seldom seen since the 2008 playoffs -- can be one of the game's best netminders. But he's struggled with consistency and technical issues over the last couple seasons, and since Tippett had no faith in rookie Tobias Stephan, Turco was forced to work through his problems in game action. His frustration and exhaustion were huge factors in the team's 2008-09 collapse.

In Auld, Dallas is getting a top-end backup goalie. His six teams in six years might not inspire confidence, but Auld has proven himself as someone who can step in every third or fourth game or carry the mail for a stretch if needed. His numbers (.911 save percentage and 2.48 GAA) also were significantly better than those of Turco (.898, 2.81). That doesn't mean he'll challenge for the No. 1 job, but Auld's presence should ensure Turco's workload drops from 74 games to something in the 55-60 range, and a rested Turco may do more for the Stars' fortunes than any high-priced free agent . . .

How long are the memories of Edmonton fans? We could find out on March 9, when the Oilers host the Senators. That's assuming, of course, that Dany Heatley is still with the Sens. A few other games that I've added to my calendar: San Jose at Colorado on Oct. 1 (the Avs aren't wasting any time in retiring Joe Sakic's jersey); Washington at Montreal on Nov. 28 (an outdoor game at the Big O? Maybe...); Philly at Boston on Jan. 1 (Fenway franks in January? I'm in!); Detroit at Pittsburgh on Jan. 31 (too bad it's not Game 8); and Calgary at Florida on Feb. 5 (the return of Jay Bouwmeester) . . .

The Sharks would love to move Jonathan Cheechoo, but the market is not exactly bullish for lead-footed, 12-goal, third-liners who have $6 million coming to them over the next two seasons. Los Tiburones need to clear some cap space, so the former Rocket Richard Trophy-winner (56 goals in 2005-06) likely could be had for picks and/or mid-level prospects. Might make for an interesting reclamation project on a team looking to add some depth to its offense. Nashville, Ottawa, Minnesota and the Islanders might be in the running . . .

Interest in Alex Tanguay is starting to build. The Panthers, who've lost Richard Zednik and Ville Peltonen, need a top-six body up front and were rumored to have signed the winger yesterday. Those rumors were denied late in the day by a team official. Whispers suggest the Predators and Blue Jackets also are sniffing around the speedy winger, despite his coming off a career-low 41-point campaign. He could be snapped up as soon as this weekend . . .

Another minor move that could pay dividends: the Flames plucking winger Nigel Dawes off waivers from Phoenix on Thursday. His speed and work ethic should guarantee him a depth job, but Calgary does have an opening for a top-six winger. Dawes, who netted 144 goals over his last three seasons with Kootenay, could claim the spot and make the Coyotes pay for letting him go. Phoenix chose to put him on waivers rather than risk having to sign him to a one-way deal in arbitration . . .

Marco Sturm has confirmed that he has no intention of waiving his no-trade clause. Doesn't mean the veteran winger, who is coming off a knee injury that sidelined him for the final 63 games last season, can't or won't be dealt as part of Boston's efforts to get under the cap. Does make it less likely, though. GM Peter Chiarelli may have to move useful energy winger Chuck Kobasew as part of his plan to free up some cap space for RFA Phil Kessel . . .

The Blues were disappointed to hear that Ian Cole will return to Notre Dame rather than turn pro this season, but are more convinced than ever of his star potential after this week's pro development camp. The 2007 first-rounder (18th overall) impressed with his reads, quick feet and physical play (check out the camp footage on the Blues website to see him wiping out big winger T.J. Oshie).

Cole is taking summer classes and hopes to finish his degree early. He'll make a strong push to jump directly to the Blues next season. One player who might not have to wait: Danish forward Lars Eller. The 13th overall pick in 2007 (the Blues had three that year) was noticeably quicker and boasted a heavier shot than last summer. You don't want to read too much into performances at these camps, but the Blues iced several NHLers, and Eller looked the part with and against them. He's got a shot to earn a depth role this year despite a logjam at forward, and looks like a good bet to emerge as a top-six winger when he hits his prime . . .

The Devils still have to sign RFA center Travis Zajac, but even if he scores big time in arbitration -- say, $3.5-$4 million -- that leaves GM Lou Lamoriello with about $7 million to spend this season. Can't you picture him graciously stepping up to help one of his fellow GMs solve their salary cap woes?