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Canadian Press
7/19/2006 5:09:33 PM

TORONTO (CP) - Sabres centre Daniel Briere is slated to open the salary arbitration period Thursday and that's only fitting given that Buffalo has a league-high 10 players scheduled for hearings.

''This kicks it off and next week is a much fuller week,'' Sabres GM Darcy Regier said Wednesday. ''We may have set a league record.''

Essentially an arbitration hearing features a club knocking down a player's worth and the agent highlighting his value before an independent arbitrator delivers a one- or two-year award no more than 48 hours later.

A team then has 48 hours from that point to decide whether to accept the award or walk away from it. The Tampa Bay Lightning were the last club to exercise that right in August 2004 after winger Cory Stillman was awarded $3.9 million for one year. He became an unrestricted free agent and signed with Carolina after the lockout (for only $1.75 million a year).

The whole process provides restricted free agents a chance to have their value independently assessed while also solving contract stalemates with clubs. If it weren't for arbitration, there would be many more players sitting at home come training camp.

While 69 players filed for arbitration on July 5, 16 have since settled, the latest being centre Eric Belanger of the Los Angeles Kings, who had a hearing set for Friday but instead re-signed for one year Wednesday.

Briere is joined in Thursday's opening hearings by San Jose's Mark Smith and Mike York of the New York Islanders.

All cases will be heard, as usual, in Toronto with the last hearings scheduled for Friday, Aug. 4. York is probably as puzzled as anyone else as to who will represent the Islanders after Neil Smith got fired as GM on Tuesday and replaced by backup goalie Garth Snow. An Islanders spokesman said a team lawyer would definitely be in Toronto to represent the team.

Briere's case is a good one to gets things rolling, unless of course he reaches a deal with Regier before the 9 a.m. ET hearing - something that has happened many times in the past. And talks were planned for Wednesday night.

''We'll certainly talk tonight, we'll see where that goes,'' said Regier. ''It's always everyone's choice to try and avoid arbitration but sometimes it's necessary to let someone else made the decision on the number.''

Said Briere's agent Pat Brisson on Wednesday: ''It's always preferable to avoid arbitration, that's why we're having ongoing discussions and hopefully we'll resolve it.''

riere, 28, earned $1.938 million last season when he was on his way to a career year before suffering the all-too-familiar sports hernia that has plagued NHLers all over the league. He ended up with 58 points (25-33) in only 48 games and kept up his magic in the playoffs, putting up 19 points (8-11) in 18 games.

It's impossible to tell how an arbitrator will react but given Martin Havlat's new $6-million a year deal in Chicago and Briere's similar career numbers, it's conceivable he could get awarded anywhere from $4 million to $6 million.

New Jersey Devils centre Scott Gomez highlights the cases on Day 2 Friday, with Ryan Malone of the Pittsburgh Penguins also up.

Many hockey types around the league have their eye on the Gomez case because of New Jersey's salary cap situation. Should Gomez, who earned $2.2 million last season while ranking second in team scoring with 84 points (33-51), get awarded anything over $5 million the Devils will have a tough decision to make, though they could accept the award and then trade him.

''Right now all we're doing is getting prepared for it, doing the best we can, being as fair as possible, and once we see where everything comes out - then we'll go from there,'' Devils GM Lou Lamoriello said Wednesday from New Jersey. ''But as far as looking beyond what hypothetically might happen, it's not in my vocabulary.''

Montreal Canadiens winger Michael Ryder has his arbitration hearing slated for next Tuesday. The 26-year-old had a team-high 30 goals last season and is looking for a big raise over the $1 million he earned.

''At this point in time it looks like we're going to arbitration on Tuesday, but you never know,'' Ryder's agent Thane Campbell said.

The Edmonton Oilers may also have their hands full with 22-year-old winger Ales Hemsky, whose hearing is set for July 28. The Oilers have talked contract with him but still no deal.

''We've had discussions and we'll probably have more later this week or earlier next week I hope,'' his agent Jiri Crha said Wednesday.

Hemsky had a career-high 77 points (19-58) in 81 games last season while earning $901,740, as well as 17 points (6-11) in 24 playoff games.

'He's a very, very talented young player, an upcoming superstar in this league,'' said Crha. ''He proved that this year with his scoring. He scored some important goals for them.''

rha, meanwhile, continues to narrow down a list of suitors for another client, 28-year-old forward Jan Bulis. But the unrestricted free agent may have to wait until after the arbitration season to find a new home.

''Some teams have told me they want to wait and see what happens during arbitration,'' said Crha. ''If they're hit hard with an award, they might walk away and sign a free agent (like Bulis) instead. I think that might happen.''

ulis had a career-high 20 goals with the Canadiens last year but the Habs have told him he's not in their plans.

The hearings end Friday, Aug. 4, with a potential doozy: 27-year-old star winger Ladislav Nagy of the Phoenix Coyotes. The super-talented but oft-injured Slovak had 56 points (15-41) in 51 games last season while making $1.976 million.

''We continue to talk but it would seem that the player market the past few weeks has exceeded what the Coyotes are willing to pay Ladislav at this time so we'll need a third party to set his salary for the coming season,'' said Nagy's agent Matt Keator. ''Both sides are fine with it, it all a part of doing business in the new NHL.''
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