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Big names won't last long on the open market

By Dan Di Sciullo
NHL Editor

Dan Di Sciullo Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - If the last few years of NHL free agency have taught us anything, it's that the best talent doesn't last long on the open market.

General managers have been looking ahead to July 1 for months and if they don't know who to target by now, they're probably not going to help their teams out very much when the free agent market opens Thursday at noon.

Of course, the biggest name on the market is sniper Ilya Kovalchuk, but his asking price eliminates most NHL teams right off the bat.

The Russian winger was dealt from Atlanta to New Jersey at last year's trade deadline, and although the Devils are still very much in the mix to sign Kovalchuk, the 27-year-old seems to have a West Coast address waiting for him in the near future.

The Los Angeles Kings appear to be leading the pack in the Kovalchuk chase, with fellow SoCal residents Anaheim also in the mix.

There is little doubt Ilya Kovalchuk is a pure goal-scorer.
The Kings are still a very young team with plenty of salary cap room, but after making the postseason last year, LA also feels that it's just one big piece away from challenging for a Stanley Cup title. Although Kovalchuk has not achieved anything in the playoffs so far, there is little doubt that he is a pure goal-scorer.

Anaheim, meanwhile, has some extra cap space to work with since defenseman Scott Niedermayer announced his retirement last week.

What hurts the Devils in the bidding war for Kovalchuk is how his stint with New Jersey this year ended. Kovalchuk filled up the stat sheet for New Jersey, recording 27 points in 27 regular-season games following the trade. He also added six points in five playoff games, but the Devils were still bounced out by Philadelphia in the opening round. It wasn't exactly the best trial run for Kovalchuk and the Devs.

Of course, the knock on this year's free agent class is that after Kovalchuk, there is a big drop-off in talent. The next-best available forwards are Ray Whitney, Olli Jokinen, Paul Kariya and Alexander Frolov and it appears Frolov is leaning towards returning to Russia to play in the KHL.

Also, the Dallas Stars announced earlier this week that they won't be re- signing Mike Modano, but the future Hall of Famer hasn't decided if he will play elsewhere. Not to mention, at 40 years old, Modano doesn't seem to have a whole lot left in the tank anyway.

But, outside of the forward realm, there are some big-ticket items to be had on the market. Defenseman Sergei Gonchar may not be returning to Pittsburgh and just about every team has a need for the two-way talent that the Russian blueliner possesses.

Dan Hamhuis and Paul Martin, who played last year for Nashville and New Jersey, respectively, are also solid puck-moving defensemen and will likely be seeking new destinations.

Hamhuis is an interesting case since his rights have been traded twice in the last few weeks, but he has still yet to sign and may want to test the open market. Philadelphia, which acquired Hamhuis' rights from Nashville, couldn't work out a deal with the blueliner and decided to ship him across state to the Penguins. So far, Pittsburgh hasn't been able to sign Hamhuis either and it appears likely that the defenseman is aiming to get the most out of his free- agency status.

There are also several options for teams looking for a starting goaltender. The San Jose Sharks have decided not to re-sign Evgeni Nabokov, and Marty Turco won't be returning to Dallas. Both goalies are 34 years old, but that doesn't mean they can't still hold down a starting job. Nabokov is especially intriguing since, unlike Turco, he is coming off another strong regular season.

Other available goaltenders who have been starters in the past are Jose Theodore, Chris Mason and Martin Biron.

It's still anybody's guess where these players will actually wind up, but it would be a surprise if most of them weren't snatched up before Monday rolls around.

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Dan Di Sciullo