Rangers allow Zherdev to become free agent

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Nik Zherdev will skate elsewhere next season, a victim of his own ineffectiveness and demands as well as the Rangers' budget and needs.

Unable to trade the 24-year-old Ukrainian winger, who started well last season but tailed off in the second half and refused a $3.25-million qualifying offer, the Rangers walked away from a one-year contract worth $3.9 million awarded by arbitrator Elliot Shiftman on Sunday. Zherdev had sought more than $4.5 million in arbitration.

Rollie Hedges, who represents Zherdev, said that he and his client have been preparing for the club's decision, which was expected. "We've discussed his options in the past, because to be fair, the Rangers couldn't afford more than the $3.25 million, and that was before they made all the other moves," Hedges said. "The issue now is where he fits in the market at this point. His first priority is to play in the NHL. If not, he'll look at Russia."

Among those other moves was to sign Ales Kotalik, 30, to a three-year, $9-million deal, effectively replacing Zherdev, who scored 23 goals and 58 points in his only season in New York after being acquired in a trade with Columbus last summer.

The Rangers, who like Newsday are owned by Cablevision, believe they've also added offense on the wing with Marian Gaborik, Chris Higgins and Enver Lisin, but aren't done with offseason transactions. "We feel it is in our best interest to walk away and continue to explore all available options to improve our roster," president and general manager Glen Sather said in a statement on the jettisoning of Zherdev, who could eventually play in Russia's KHL.

Negotiations are ongoing with center Brandon Dubinsky, 23, the lone remaining restricted free agent. Dubinsky rejected a qualifying offer of $698,000 and Zherdev's departure gives the Rangers a little more wiggle room. A No. 1 center is also on coach John Tortorella's wish list, although Brad Richards' $7.8-million contract is untenable without sending salary back to the Dallas Stars. Another possibility is unrestricted free agent Mats Sundin, whom the Rangers wooed late last season before the Swedish veteran opted to go to Vancouver.

As for another new arrival, enforcer Donald Brashear, Sean Avery said Tuesday: "I know he's a scary dude . . . I've never fought him; I've never been dumb enough to do that . . . It's always good to have a presence physically on the team, whether it's a guy on the back or a guy up front . . . as much as people say it's not a part of the game, it is . . . Brash will definitely be welcome in this dressing room."

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