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Rangers, Islanders unlikely to be big spenders for free agents

The free-agent NHL frenzy begins at noon Thursday. Don't expect the Islanders or Rangers to go too wild.

The Islanders, who have more salary-cap room than any team except the Blues - the Isles are currently $12 million below the salary-cap floor of $43.4 million for next season - have made it company policy to be patient free-agent players.

They have plenty of needs, but not a ton of urgency to spend with the teams that are willing to go over the top to grab the elite of a very weak free-agency group.

The Rangers have long been among that handful of teams willing to spend, but team president Glen Sather has said he'll be patient this time around. The Rangers only have about $14 million of cap space, and that's before they have signed restricted free- agent defensemen Dan Girardi and Marc Staal.

They have needs, too, and one of those, a backup goaltender, may be the first addressed Thursday.

Here's a breakdown heading into free agency:

ISLANDERS

What they need: A veteran defenseman, preferably one with a mean streak and a good locker-room presence; a scoring winger or two and a goaltender to provide insurance against Rick DiPietro's fragile health.

What they'll get: Anton Volchenkov fits their defensive profile nicely, but will Garth Snow go to $5 million a year to get the former Senator? Andy Sutton has expressed a desire to return, but not for the $3 million he was making. Vinny Prospal revived his career with the Rangers last season and he'd look good with the Isles, given a strong relationship with Snow and a positive attitude. In goal, they may take whomever's left after teams scavenge the UFAs available, someone like Andrew Raycroft.

RANGERS

What they need: A capable, third-pair defenseman to replace Wade Redden, who's almost certainly headed to Hartford when the season begins. A No. 1 center, even though there aren't any available in this free-agent crop. And a backup goaltender who can play 20 games and provide a good shoulder for Henrik Lundqvist to lean on.

What they'll get: The Rangers aren't shooting for the moon on defense, so Volchenkov, Dan Hamhuis and Paul Martin aren't coming; think more along the lines of the Wings' Brett Lebda, the Lightning's Kurtis Foster or, if they're willing to spend more in the $3 million-$4 million range, the Sabres' Toni Lydman.

The center crop is amazingly weak; Prospal might be back if he's seeking a reasonable amount (under $3 million), and a depth guy like Rob Niedermayer would help, but not be a big answer. Former Islander Marty Biron and Ranger-killer Johan Hedberg are the top goaltending targets; expect one of them to be a Ranger by the end of business Thursday.

Ultimately, the bright-lights attraction, Ilya Kovalchuk, won't be wearing one of the local sweaters. Not really any of the top 10 free agents are local targets; money is a big reason, as it always is for the Islanders, but even the Rangers are swept up in thinking long term and not for the quick fix they've always sought - but never found - when the calendar turns to July.

The Dolan family owns controlling interests in the Rangers, MSG and Cablevision. Cablevision owns Newsday.

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