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HULL becoming a free agent, but could return to Dallas

FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) _ Brett Hull, whose first season in Dallas ended with a controversial Stanley Cup-winning goal, becomes an unrestricted free agent July 1 after the Stars decided not to exercise a $7 million option for 2001-02.

While the move wasn't unexpected, it doesn't mean that Hull couldn't return to the Stars for a fourth season.

``We had a very logical and direct conversation about the situation as it stands, and the possibility that could unfold in the near future,'' Stars general manager Bob Gainey said Thursday. ``Our paths could cross again after July 1.''

For now, the Stars will pursue other options to find an accomplished goal scorer younger than Hull. The 16-year NHL veteran turns 37 in August.

Among the potential free agents that could fit that bill are Phoenix's Jeremy Roenick, 31, and Detroit's Martin Lapointe, 27. The Stars were expected to pursue John LeClair, but he avoided free agency when he signed a five-year deal Thursday worth about $9 million a year to stay in Philadelphia.

``We've decided that we are going to be active in any what that we can. We are looking outside with an open mind,'' Gainey said, without naming names.

If the Stars can't properly replace Hull, he could be back in Dallas, where the forward has said he would stay for less money. But there was no other offer from the Stars before dropping the option.

``Brett is naturally disappointed,'' said Michael Barnett, Hull's agent. ``With disappointment is understanding that it's a business decision. Brett bears no animosity. He must look at the free agency the team is giving him as a business decision also.''

Barnett said he doesn't expect Hull to make a hasty decision.

Hull scored 95 goals the last three seasons in Dallas, including a team-high 39 last season to go along with 40 assists. His 649 career goals ranks seventh in NHL history, 39 more than his father Bobby and second-most among active players behind Mark Messier (651).

The most memorable of his 21 playoff goals with the Stars came in triple overtime of Game 6 during the 1999 Stanley Cup when, with one foot in the crease, Hull scored the title-clinching goal at Buffalo. He has 90 career playoff goals.

After playing for the Stanley Cup again in 2000, losing in six games to New Jersey, the Stars were swept in the second round of this year's playoffs by St. Louis, Hull's team the 11 seasons before coming to Dallas as a free agent in July 1998.

The early exit from the playoffs was the precursor to what likely will be a busy offseason for Dallas. The Stars played their final game May 3, more than a month earlier than the previous two years.

``This team always has certain expectations we are trying to reach or surpass. This year, we didn't do that,'' Gainey said. ``When you have that happen, the evaluation is a little more intense.

``Couple that with the time we have had since being eliminated, it gives you a little more time to review and evaluate and watch other teams, and discuss your own team.''

The Stars are negotiating with checking-line forwards Mike Keane and Kirk Muller, who could become unrestricted free agents July 1. Defenseman Sami Helenius, who would have been a restricted free agent, signed a one-year contract Wednesday.

Dallas has decided against re-signing right wing John MacLean, left wing Ted Donato and defenseman Grant Ledyard.

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