Bucks Stop Here
Nearly five dozen players will become unrestricted free agents on July 1, and those who made it to the postseason know that prospective employers have been watching. "At this time of year you look for that intangible: Is he a winner?" says Sharks general manager Dean Lombardi. "You want to see a player suck it up and produce at crunch time."
Here's how five top free agents had shaped their future through the early part of the playoffs.
? Brett Hull, RW, Blues Though he had only 27 goals in 66 regular-season games, he played the best two-way hockey of his career. He continued that in the playoffs: Through the first five games he hadn't been on the ice for a goal against while also producing three goals and three assists. Expect Hull, 33, to get a three-or four-year deal at more than $6 million per annum. Possible suitors: Blues, Blackhawks, Kings, Capitals.
? Doug Gilmour, C, Devils He was New Jersey's best player and only consistent offensive threat against the Senators in Round 1, scoring five times and setting up two other goals. His $3.55 million salary will very likely balloon this summer. Possible suitors: Black-hawks, Maple Leafs, Mighty Ducks.
? Ron Francis, C, Penguins Despite being hounded by Canadiens checking center Marc Bureau, Francis had one goal and five assists in Pittsburgh's six-game first-round loss to Montreal. The 35-year-old Francis, who earned a relatively modest $1.9 million in '97-98, showed his legs are still strong. Possible suitors: Blues, Rangers.
? Curtis Joseph, G, Oilers For the second straight season he helped the Oilers to a first-round upset, this year closing out Edmonton's 4-3 series win over the Avalanche with back-to-back shutouts. Then he had another whitewash in Game 2 of the second-round series against the Stars. At 31, Joseph often dominates when it counts. Expect him to double his $2.3 million salary. Possible suitors: Flyers, Oilers.
? Sean Burke, G, Flyers He hurt himself more in the postseason than any other prospective free agent. Burke, 31, had a league-worst .860 save percentage against the offensively challenged Sabres in Philadelphia's five-game defeat It's hard to imagine a team giving Burke an increase on the $2.5 million he made this year. Possible suitors: ?
Lost and Found In Berlin
On a cold and starless evening in Nuremberg, Germany, three months ago, Brian Bellows was huddled over a pregame nosh of coffee and cake. He and his Berlin Capitals teammates had traveled six hours by bus to Nuremberg and were about to play a German pro league game before a sparse crowd braving the bitter elements at an open-air arena. Bellows, who had been an All-Star three times in 15 NHL seasons and had scored 40 goals for the 1993 Stanley Cup-winning Canadiens, sat there chilled to the bone, thinking, So this is how it's all going to end.