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Lecavalier boosts then bolts NHL free-agent class as teams aim to make moves with smaller cap

Vincent Lecavalier, Danny Briere and Ilya Bryzgalov have injected some more intrigue into NHL free agency.

So much so that Lecavalier kicked off the annual signing period Tuesday, three days before it officially began, by signing a multiyear contract with the Philadelphia Flyers.

The deal reflects the impact the addition of several veterans who had their contracts bought out have made in boosting interest in a free-agent crop that lacked star power a year after Ryan Suter and Zach Parise created a buzz by hitting the market and landing in Minnesota.

Lecavalier was able to shop around early because he was bought out.

"The depth isn't what it has been in past years, but there are some very good players available," Nashville Predators general manager David Poile said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press on Tuesday. "It's a different situation, though, with the lower cap, so it'll be interesting to see what this crop of free agents gets both in terms of salary and years."

The NHL's salary cap will be $64.3 million for the 2013-14 season, a total significantly less than the $70.2 million in contracts teams could have on the books during the lockout-delayed season.

Lecavalier unexpectedly became available after the Tampa Bay Lightning bought out the contract of their 33-year-old captain last week. The Flyers did the same by cutting ties with Briere, a 35-year-old forward, and Bryzgalov, a 33-year-old goaltender.

Potential free agents such as forward Mike Ribeiro, who appears to have passed on re-signing with Washington, or other players who weren't welcomed back will hit the market Wednesday for the first of a two-day interview period before any deals can be signed.

"It's great to have players out there," Detroit Red Wings coach Mike Babcock told AP, "but you have to have money to spend."

With Lecavalier now off the market, Briere and Bryzgalov come into full focus. For now, though, their former team—Philadelphia—has secured the most marketable player out there.

The Dallas Stars were interested in Lecavalier, as well, but as general manager Jim Nill had indicated: "So are probably 28 other teams. It'll come down to money and fit."

Lecavalier, who also spoke with Boston over the weekend, didn't mesh with Tampa Bay's plans, or at least his contract didn't with seven years and $45 million remaining on it.

By buying out the player they selected No. 1 in the 1998 draft, the Lightning saved more than $7.7 million cap space for the upcoming season. The move cost them $32 million over 14 years because he is due two-thirds the value of his deal spread over twice the term of the contract.

Now, it's time for teams that missed out on Lecavalier to re-evaluate their plans.

Free agent forward Nathan Horton, who helped Boston to the Stanley Cup final, is planning to visit with suitors over the next few days. And Briere is expected to explore his options by phone.

Briere scored just six goals and had a mere 16 points in 34 games last season, but he's two years removed from a 34-goal, 34-assist year. In Philadelphia, Briere had two seasons left on a $52 million, eight-year contract. And Bryzgalov was just two years into his $51 million, nine-year deal.

Briere's agent, Pat Brisson, said about 15 teams already contacted him to express an interest, and his client is looking forward to a fresh start with a Stanley Cup-contending franchise.

"He still has a lot in his tank," Brisson told AP. "So it's an opportunity for him."

Buffalo general manager Darcy Regier said Briere, a former Sabre he called a "very capable" player, won't have a problem finding employment this off-season.

And looking ahead to next year, when players such as Sabres goalie Ryan Miller and forward Thomas Vanek might become free agents, Regier is among the GMs looking into all options to make his team better now and later.

Are the Sabres shopping?

"It would be fair to characterize that I'm actively finding out what the market place is like," Regier said. "And it's not limited to those two players."

Free agency won't be limited to the bought-out bunch. In addition to Horton and Ribeiro, there are other unrestricted forwards such as Jaromir Jagr, Teemu Selanne, Jarome Iginla, Patrik Elias and David Clarkson—unless any of them sign with their old teams by the end of Thursday.

The Pittsburgh Penguins kept forward Pascal Dupuis off the list late Tuesday night, keeping him with a $15 million, four-year deal.

"It's rare to find a star in his prime in free agency because those guys get signed to long-term contracts before they can hit the market," Red Wings general manager Ken Holland said. "But there are some secondary players and some past-their-prime guys that are battling Father Time that can help you."

Perhaps the Flyers just found one.

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AP Sports Writer John Wawrow in Buffalo, N.Y., contributed to this report.

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Follow Larry Lage on Twitter: http://twitter.com/larrylage

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