- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Washington Capitals coach Glen Hanlon wanted no part of a question about Buffalo centers Chris Drury and Daniel Briere at practice Friday afternoon, even though his team would face the Sabres in about 24 hours.

He knew the question had nothing to do with the forthcoming hockey game.

Drury and Briere, part of an elite group of upcoming free agent centers, will be two of the most sought-after players when the market opens July 1. Perhaps the biggest need on the Caps’ shopping list this offseason is a top-flight center to play with Alex Ovechkin.

“I looked up at the board today and saw that Sidney Crosby has 59 points on the power play,” Caps owner Ted Leonsis said after the team’s loss to Buffalo on Saturday. “I don’t think we have a center that has 59 points on the power play. … We need to have better specialty teams, and that really does come from having a bit more veteran leadership and experience and maybe some better centers. We have one we think will add a lot to the team with [2006 first-round pick] Nicklas Backstrom, but we are probably going to be in the market, either via trade or free agency, for another center.”

While the Caps have other holes to fill, their quest for a No. 1 center will garner the most attention.

Drury, who turns 31 in August, is the captain of the best team in the league. He also had the best statistical year of his career, tallying highs in goals (37) and points (69).

“I’d take Chris Drury on any team I ever played on,” Caps defenseman Brian Pothier said. “He is a pure leader and a winner.”

While he finished the season tied for 14th in the NHL in goals scored, he also has done a good job of preventing them. Drury has teamed with former Capital Dainius Zubrus and Ales Kotalik to form Buffalo’s checking line.

Briere is more offensive minded than Drury, but both do their jobs extremely well, Zubrus said.

“They are very different, but it would be tough to pick between either of them,” he said.

Listed at 5-foot-10 and 178 pounds, Briere has 153 points in 129 games since the lockout, including 95 this season. With 63 assists this season, he has become one of the game’s best playmakers.

Briere, who turns 30 in October, already was a marked man among Caps fans for his retaliatory spear of Ovechkin earlier this season. While Ovechkin has said the two All-Star Game starters mended fences in Dallas, Briere was ejected from Saturday’s game for spearing Milan Jurcina during a post-whistle entanglement.

“Any guy who mixes it up on the other team is a guy you want on your team. That is just the way it is,” Pothier said. “You want guys on your team that you don’t like to play against.”

Another player Caps fans will be watching closely is New Jersey’s Scott Gomez. The 27-year-old has been a mainstay in the Devils’ lineup since winning the Calder trophy in 1999-00. This season, he had 13 goals and 60 points but missed 10 games.

“I know Gomer personally, so I think he would be great,” Caps goaltender Olie Kolzig said. “He’s a very charismatic person who would add a lot of life to the dressing room. … I think he would work well with Ovie.”

While Colorado’s Joe Sakic signed a one-year deal yesterday to remain with the only organization he has known, Nashville’s Peter Forsberg, 33, could parlay a big playoff into one final big payoff, though his recent injury history likely will limit the length of his deal.

Other centers that could be available include Chicago’s Michal Handzus, Ottawa’s Mike Comrie and the Islanders’ Viktor Kozlov. Older short-term options include former Capital Robert Lang and Florida’s Jozef Stumpel.

Even Zubrus can’t be ruled out.

“Free agency is goofy every summer. You just have to make the right decisions,” Caps general manager George McPhee said. “We are happy this phase is over. We’ve played with real young players for two years, and it has been tough. It is a tough way to go, but that was part of the plan. I think this team will mature over the summer, we’ll add a few pieces and we will have a better hockey club next year.”

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