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Time to sign restricted free agents is running out

by Corey Masisak

Opening night for the 2011-12 NHL season will be three weeks away Thursday and training camps open this weekend. However, several critical young players remain unsigned.

While the unrestricted free agent class of 2011 was considered lacking in depth of impact players, the group of restricted free agents was bountiful -- and no fewer than six who could be classified anywhere from "franchise player" to "expected to make a significant impact this season" remained without signed contracts Wednesday morning.

By Wednesday evening, however, that number had dipped to four, as two of the players got new contracts, further illustrating the demand to get these top-tier players under contract.

Early in the afternoon, the Bruins signed playoff hero Brad Marchand to a two-year deal just 48 hours before players report for physicals. A few hours later, Winnipeg signed Zach Bogosian, a franchise-type defenseman, to a reported two-year deal.

Los Angeles Kings defenseman Drew Doughty is the headliner of the group of remaining unsigned restricted free agents. Doughty had a monster second season in 2009-10, earning a trip to Las Vegas for the NHL Awards as a Norris Trophy finalist at the age of 20.

His production slipped last season, but after a slow start he earned plaudits for improving his work in the defensive end and remains in the discussion of best young defensemen in hockey -- and easily could return to his place among the best regardless of age.

"I still have hope he'll be here Friday. I don't know if I expect it, but I have hope," Lombardi told Helene Elliott of the Los Angeles Times. "It's better than no hope."


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Lombardi said money and contract length remain unresolved. Should Doughty's absence linger into the regular season, it would downgrade Los Angeles' chance of challenging the San Jose Sharks for Pacific Division supremacy and temper what had become increasingly exciting expectations with the summer arrival of Mike Richards and Simon Gagne.

"(We) want to get him here as soon as possible," Kings captain Dustin Brown told Elliott. "I have confidence that they'll figure it out. He's not going to not play for us."

Doughty and Nashville's Shea Weber were considered the top tier of RFA defensemen this offseason, but neither has signed a long-term contract (Weber was awarded $7.5 million for this season via team-elected arbitration). So the players in the next tier, specifically Toronto's Luke Schenn and Winnipeg's Zach Bogosian, don't have as many current comparables to help their negotiations.

Schenn had 5 goals and 22 points for the Maple Leafs last season, but led the team in blocked shots with 168. He also logged 22:22 of ice time per game, which was fourth on the team (and third when Tomas Kaberle departed for Boston).

That total also was the sixth in the League among defensemen who hadn't reached their 22nd birthday. There were multiple reports Tuesday, however, that Schenn and the Leafs were close to a deal and he is not expected miss any of training camp.

Bogosian has not developed quite like Doughty and Schenn, but the potential to be a legitimate No. 1 defenseman remains. He was fifth on the aforementioned time-on-ice list, averaging two seconds per contest more than Schenn.

During the first months of the 2009-10 season, Bogosian looked every bit the part of future franchise defenseman. He had 8 goals in his first 17 games, but managed only two the rest of the season and only 2 assists in his final 32 games.

He had 5 goals and 17 points last season, and was a healthy scratch a few times in January. Now Bogosian has a chance at a fresh start with a new coaching staff in Winnipeg.

Tim Thomas deservedly was the Conn Smythe Trophy winner for the Boston Bruins after a fantastic postseason, but Marchand may have been the team's best skater during the Stanley Cup Final.

Marchand had 21 goals in the regular season and followed that with a Bruins-rookie record 11 goals in the postseason. His forays to -- and past -- "the edge" have earned him a reputation for being a player opponents are fond of disliking, but when he stays within the rules, Marchand may be close to earning the title of most talented "pest" in the League.

Josh Bailey had a strong 2009-10 season, but went 13 games without a point and was demoted to the AHL early last season. He finished the season with 11 goals and 28 points in 70 games -- not that far off his 16 goals and 35 points from the previous season.

Which line Bailey would center behind John Tavares remains to be determined, but he's one of several young forwards who offer the potential for a bright future on Long Island.

"Me and (GM Garth Snow) have always had a great relationship and I've always only had the intentions of playing here," Bailey told Newsday. "This is home, this is where I want to be, so I have faith that (agent Pat Morris) and Garth can find common ground."

Kyle Turris was the third pick in the 2007 Entry Draft, but has taken longer to develop than the two players picked before him (Chicago's Patrick Kane and Philadelphia's James van Riemsdyk). Turris had 11 goals and 20 points in 65 games for Phoenix last season, though he did contribute a goal and 2 assists in the Coyotes’ four postseason games against the Red Wings.

TSN's Bob McKenzie reported Tuesday that Turris' agent and the Coyotes were far apart on a deal.

"I'm a restricted free agent, other than that I can't say a lot more -- I'll leave it to my agent," Turris told Ian Walker of the Vancouver Sun. "It's definitely different. It's tough, but you know there's always the possibility. It's part of the job. I'm just doing everything I can to be ready when the time comes."
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