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To Qualify Or Not To Qualify. . .

by Staff Writer / Toronto Maple Leafs
(Canadian Press) - Several of the NHL's 30 general managers took turns during last weekend's entry draft predicting a record number of restricted free agents being cut loose this year.

Now it's time to see if such talk is cheap.

Teams have until midnight Monday to send in qualifying offers to their respective restricted free agents - players under the age of 31 whose contracts have run out. Qualifying offers have to be at least the same salary the player earned the year before and in some cases that's being seen as too much as clubs attempt to tighten their belts ahead of an anticipated labour battle in 2004.

The benefit of tendering a qualifying offer, of course, is that the team continues to control the player's exclusive rights.

The alternative, which has rarely been chosen, is not to qualify the player and let him become an unrestricted free agent regardless of age. When push came to shove in recent years, teams qualified in almost every case.

"I go back to some past years and we thought about doing it but we end up going ahead and signing the player because you don't want to give up the asset," Carolina Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford said Wednesday from Raleigh.

But Rutherford, like some of his colleagues around the league, appears ready to change his ways.

The Leafs are set on bringing back unrestricted free agent Glen Wesley.
Getty Images/NHLI
"We're considering not qualifying two or three of our players but we haven't made the final decision," Rutherford said.

Rutherford would not identify the players in question but one look at his roster and the most obvious candidate not to receive a qualifying offer would be forward Jan Hlavac - who at $1.65 million US isn't worth the nine goals he had last year.

"The main reason is that the asset gets to a certain point that it's overpriced," Rutherford said. "And we would only (not qualify a player) if we felt we had another player that could take his place and play the same role for less amount of money."

A look at other rosters around the league finds other possible candidates such as New Jersey Devils defenceman Oleg Tverdovsky ($3.6 million), Florida Panthers centre Victor Kozlov ($2.1 million) and Toronto Maple Leafs winger Jonas Hoglund ($1.54 million).

Atlanta Thrashers GM Don Waddell has led the way in this. He didn't tender qualifying offers to forward Andrew Brunette or defenceman Steve Staios in June 2001 (both players signed with other teams) and now it may be that other teams will follow suit.

But despite all the tough talk from GMs in the Music City, few will believe them until they see the proof come midnight Monday.

"I've heard the same buzz but I think it's too early to know," agent Don Baizley said Wednesday from Winnipeg. "Invariably most of them (qualifying offers) come in at the last minute even though some are in already. It's too early to tell what's happening."

"I don't have a sense right now and I won't really until Monday."

Among Baizley's clients who need to be qualified is Mighty Ducks star Paul Kariya, whose re-up price is a minimum of $10 million. Can the Ducks take the chance of not qualifying him and then try to sign him a two or three-year deal at less money per year?

Kariya's 81 points last season were 13th among NHL scoring leaders but his salary was tied for second highest. He had 12 points in 21 post-season games.

On the other hand, how could the Ducks possibly live without their No. 1 marketable player?

These are the tough decisions to come in the next few days.

Starting next Tuesday will be the usual chase for unrestricted free agents although agents and GMs alike expect a quiet first couple of days this year as teams carefully choose how to spend their money (for once).

The Group III unrestricted class (players 31 and over) has already been well-documented and carries the big names looking for big dollars: Sergei Fedorov and Joe Nieuwendyk highlight an otherwise unimpressive forward group while Derian Hatcher, Brian Leetch, Eric Desjardins, Bryan Marchment, Dmitry Yushkevich, Murray Baron and Glen Wesley lead a terrific but expensive group of blue-liners.

Jeff Hackett and Felix Potvin are the only starting goalies available among the Group IIIs.

Then there's the Group V unrestricted group, where a record seven players under the age of 31 meet the rare criteria of having been in the league 10 years but earning less than the $1.79-million league average salary last season: forwards Todd Marchant, Jeff Shantz and defencemen Greg De Vries, Cale Hulse, Jamie Pushor and Ian Moran can all become unrestricted.
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