Some of game's best might not be back

When the doors swung closed on the NHL at the start of the lockout almost a year ago, it was believed fans might have seen the last of some of the game's finest players, greatest leaders.

Many of the game's aging stars have found a new reservoir of desire during the lockout and will return for at least one more season: Steve Yzerman and Chris Chelios, who will once again slip on Detroit Red Wing jerseys; Luc Robitaille will suit up next to former Flyer Jeremy Roenick in Los Angeles; Brian Leetch will patrol the Boston blue line and childhood pals Joe Nieuwendyk and Gary Roberts are expected to provide veteran leadership in Florida.

But not all graying hockey luminaries will be back on the blades when training camps open in less than three weeks, and as time ticks away on summer and salary cap dollars continue to add up for individual teams, it is looking more and more like the lockout will cost fans one final moment with some of the game's greats.

Here's a look at some of those players still in limbo:

Mark Messier, 44

Mark Messier The Moose is one season off the NHL record of 26 seasons set by Gordie Howe. He also trails Howe by nine games for the most games ever played (1,767). So in terms of attainable goals, there is motivation for Messier to return for another kick at the can. And some forget that Messier, an unrestricted free agent, was a useful member of a bad Rangers team in 2003-04, chipping in 18 goals and 43 points in 76 games while averaging 16 minutes and 29 seconds a night.

The problem for Messier is in finding the right fit. It's believed the Rangers would have Messier back, although he hardly fits the team's so-called "youth" movement. If he goes to Edmonton, another rumored destination, it would have to be with the understanding that Messier's role would be almost that of a mentor, logging significantly fewer minutes on the ice while spending more time working with younger players. Still, it's hard to imagine one of the finest leaders in the game being a role player.
And therein lies the dilemma for Messier and the small group of teams that might be interested in his services -- can a legend and certain Hall of Famer accept less than a starring role? Messier's father, Doug Messier, said this week that his son hasn't made up his mind yet about coming back.

Best Guess: We've seen the last of Messier, at least until he joins a team's coaching staff or walks up the stairs to the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Scott Stevens, 41

Scott Stevens The big defenseman is more elusive than Bigfoot. Although medically cleared to play, Stevens has offered only the most cursory of comments about his intentions. The bone-crunching defender missed most of the 2003-04 season with a concussion, the genesis of which dates back to the 2003 playoffs.

It's hard to imagine Stevens' playing at anything less than his own definition of 100 percent. He's not a guy who plays the angles and eases opponents out of the play. Devils GM Lou Lamoriello has said all along this will be Stevens' decision, but the manner in which Lamoriello has built his team (he is currently over the $39-million salary cap) indicates he does not expect Stevens to return. As for the unrestricted free agent's bolting to another team, don't count on it. "Whether it's Scott Stevens on the ice or Scott Stevens off the ice, he'll be a Devil for as long as he sees fit," Lamoriello said Thursday.

Best Guess: Stevens, like Messier, will exit gracefully and quietly bide his time until the Hall of Fame selection committee calls his name.

Ron Francis, 42

Ron Francis The man they call Ronnie Franchise appears to have settled quite nicely into retirement in the Raleigh, N.C., area. Although he accepted a trade to Toronto at the 2004 trade deadline, Francis failed to score in 12 playoff games and seemed out of his element against the physically imposing Flyers. One of the most understated of all NHL stars, Francis is currently fourth all-time with 1,798 points behind only Wayne Gretzky, Messier and Gordie Howe.

Best Guess: Francis, as befitting his personality, will exit quietly from the game.

Al MacInnis, 42

Al MacInnis One of the finest defensemen of his generation, MacInnis was still playing at the top of his game when he suffered an eye injury against Nashville on Oct. 16, 2003, just three games into the season.

A two-time Olympian and 12-time All-Star, MacInnis was still averaging 25 minutes of ice time a night. Still, from the moment he was injured, the St. Louis Blues believed he would not return, GM Larry Pleau said this week. Although the former Conn Smythe and Norris Trophy winner played in a handful of charity games during the lockout and was given a rousing ovation during one such game in St. Louis, there is no indication MacInnis has any inclination to return to the ice.

Best Guess: Look for the Blues to formally announce MacInnis' retirement in the coming weeks and provide him the ceremony he richly deserves. A coaching spot with the team might not be all that far down the road.

Steve Thomas, 42

Steve Thomas Stumpy is a bit of a wild card in the graybeard sweepstakes. Working out in Toronto, where his children are involved in minor hockey, Thomas has suddenly found himself an interesting option for teams looking to fill out their roster with veteran talent who can still skate.

Always a feisty competitor with good hands and a terrific shot, the new rules might just give Thomas a new or at least slightly used lease on hockey life. It appeared Thomas was done when nobody bothered to sign the native of Stockport, England, at the start of the 2003-04 season, but when the Red Wings came calling, Thomas filled in ably, notching 22 points in 44 games. Most of those came early in the season and he was a healthy scratch during the playoffs so the issue of gas in the tank remains a valid one.

The dilemma for Thomas, who still yearns to win a Stanley Cup, will be fit, and whether he's prepared to disrupt his family after 20 years of disruptions if he can't make it work in Toronto.

Best Guess: Leafs GM John Ferguson Jr. already has enough question marks in his lineup with Eric Lindros and Jason Allison and takes a pass, bringing Thomas' career to a close.

James Patrick, 42

James Patrick The veteran defenseman played in only 55 games during the 2003-04 season, but both he and the Buffalo Sabres, the team for whom he has toiled since 1998, would like to see the relationship continue. Although he is currently without a contract, it appears both sides are on the same page and should move forward from there.

Best Guess: Patrick will attend the Sabres training camp, and assuming both sides are comfortable with his physical readiness, he will be in the lineup when the season opens.

Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.