Sunday, February 9, 2003

Blue Jackets could lose top scorers in free agency



The Associated Press

COLUMBUS, Ohio - Faced with losing his top three scorers to free agency, Blue Jackets general manager Doug MacLean said he's focused on re-signing the players, not dealing them before the league's trade deadline.

Left wings Geoff Sanderson and Ray Whitney, the team's captain, are in the final seasons of their contracts and can become unrestricted free agents this summer.

Center Andrew Cassels has two option years remaining on his deal. Five more points scored and the veteran - not the Blue Jackets - will get to choose whether to exercise those option years.

"Obviously, the No. 1 priority is to try to get all three of them signed," said MacLean, also the Blue Jackets president and interim coach. "And that's all I'm focusing on."

Losing Sanderson, Whitney and Cassels could be devastating for the improving Blue Jackets.

Whitney leads Columbus with 51 points on 14 goals and 37 assists. Cassels has 45 points (14 goals, 31 assists) and Sanderson has 22 goals and 21 assists for 43 points.

All could bring prospects in a trade, but MacLean would rather try to make progress on new contracts than be forced to make deals before the March 11 deadline.

"The only way I'd pass the deadline is if I'm confident we were going to work together to get something done and that (both) sides had come to that consensus - which I suspect is the case (with all three)," MacLean said.

Labor strife could limit the length of the contracts and how much Whitney ($2.4 million), Cassels ($2.5 million) and Sanderson ($2.1 million) make in their next deals.

Whitney, an All-Star selection this season, is optimistic a deal can be worked out despite the threat of a work stoppage in 2004.

"Generally, I'd say it has gone well. It hasn't been too confrontational," he said.

After signing with Columbus in the offseason to be closer to his children in Toronto, Cassels said his family will play a big role in what he does this summer.

"I'm enjoying it here," he said. "I like the direction of the team. The time will come when I'll make a decision; I'm leaning toward Columbus."

Sanderson's agent has discussed a new contract with the Blue Jackets, and the two sides plan to negotiate in earnest later this month when assistant general manager Jim Clark returns from a European scouting trip.

"I want to get it done. I look forward to being here with the Blue Jackets," Sanderson said. "There's a lot of uncertainty in unrestricted free agency - more so now than ever before, with all the (labor) stuff looming in the future."

NOTES

Columbus is raising ticket prices for projected sellouts and Saturday games just months after saying there would be no variable-pricing policy this season.

The Blue Jackets are charging an extra $10 for games that are potential sellouts, and $5 more for games on Saturdays.

Ticket prices were increased for a game against Chicago next Saturday and for games against Stanley Cup champion Detroit on March 3 and April 4.

Single-game tickets for upcoming Saturday games against Edmonton, Calgary, Minnesota and Atlanta cost $5 more than they did a week ago.

"We are following suit with every other sports team and doing a test," said Michael Humes, senior vice president for business operations.

Humes said the increase affects a limited number of tickets that were held and later released.

Through January, the Blue Jackets' average attendance was 17,699, 11th-highest in the NHL. The club has 13 sellouts in 27 home games.

Ottawa, Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay and Vancouver instituted similar variable-pricing plans this season.




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