Mark Messier is free to leave New York.
The Rangers’ 36-year-old captain heads the list of unrestricted NHL free agents and could draw interest from teams looking for the final piece to their Stanley Cup puzzle.
Rangers general manager Neil Smith has said repeatedly he plans on keeping Messier in New York. And while a recent report that the 1997-98 season will be Wayne Gretzky’s last was denied by his agent, Messier isn’t likely to leave his longtime friend alone in the Big Apple.
However, can the Rangers, in need of remodeling an aging team, afford to keep Messier, who earned $6 million last season while collecting 36 goals and 48 assists in 71 games? Or do any of the league’s other 25 teams feel Messier, who managed only three goals and nine assists in this year’s playoffs, has anything left?
“It’s a difficult business decision that some teams are going to have to make,” said Boston agent Bob Murray. “Teams are all trying to operate within a budget and clearly, signing Messier throws your budget out of whack a little bit.”
It’s a chance some teams may be willing to take in hopes of winning a Stanley Cup, something Messier has done six times, five with the Edmonton Oilers and one with the Rangers.
Another option is that Messier could take a pay cut, something he said he was willing to do last summer when New York was pursuing Gretzky. However, it was Gretzky who ended up taking a $1.1 million reduction.
No matter what scenario unfolds with Messier, the NHL’s free agency period isn’t expected to bring many surprises.
Other unrestricted free agents include Messier’s teammates, Russ Courtnall, Pat Flatley, Esa Tikkanen and Doug Lidster. Florida Panthers forwards Brian Skrudland and Mike Hough are available as are Dave Ellett and Bobby Carpenter of the New Jersey Devils, Dave Gagner of the Calgary Flames and Rick Tocchet, who rejected a reported $2.2 million offer from the Washington Capitals.
Teams searching for a veteran goalie could sign the Dallas Stars’ Andy Moog or Ed Belfour of the San Jose Sharks.
While those players can be signed for only the cost of their salaries, the plight of the NHL’s Group II restricted free agents, such as forwards Paul Kariya of Anaheim, Joe Sakic of Colorado and Sergei Fedorov of Detroit, is different.
Teams owning the rights of a restricted free agent can match any offers made. If they choose not to match an offer, the team signing a Group II free agent will have to forfeit five first-round draft picks, which can limit offers.
“Traditionally, Group II free agents don’t get much in the way of offers,” Murray said. “And that’s discouraging and frustrating.”
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