Thrashers, Blue Jackets sign premier free agents

Wednesday, August 3, 2005

The new-look NHL has some brand new players in the free agent market.

Dishing out big contracts to big players is no longer a summertime activity limited to large-market teams. Welcome to the party, Columbus and Atlanta.

Two of the NHL's three youngest franchises jumped into the fray on a very busy Tuesday as Columbus nabbed topflight defenseman Adam Foote, and Atlanta signed rugged forward Bobby Holik.

On Monday, the first day of the free agent shopping season, only the Florida Panthers made major news when they signed forwards Joe Nieuwendyk and Gary Roberts away from Toronto.

But several teams got in the mix on Day 2, trying to fill up their new $39 million salary cap.

"In the old system, without a salary cap, more teams would have been involved in it and who knows where the numbers would have ended up," Thrashers general manager Don Waddell said. "But the new system with the salary cap I think puts more teams on an equal ground because we all have the same amount of money to spend."

Leading free agent forwards Peter Forsberg and Mike Modano and top defenseman Scott Niedermayer were still weighing offers -- some that might allow them to sign for the maximum of $7.8 million for next season. No player may earn more than 20 percent of a team's salary cap.

The Philadelphia Flyers retooled their defense corps by signing Derian Hatcher, Mike Rathje and Chris Therien and trading Danny Markov to the Nashville Predators.

Hatcher agreed to a four-year deal worth $14 million, Rathje signed a five-year pact that will pay him $3.5 million per season, and Therien received a one-year deal for $500,000 -- rejoining the club with whom he spent his first 10-plus NHL seasons.

All three are listed as 6-foot-5, 235 pounds -- more than enough for the Flyers to beef up their blue line.

"I know the Flyers are a very good, competitive team," Hatcher said. "I truly feel that they are out to win at least a Stanley Cup."

Holik will be a needed veteran presence with the Thrashers, whose offense is led by youngsters Dany Heatley and Ilya Kovalchuk.

After having his contract bought out last week by the New York Rangers, Holik signed a three-year, $12.75 million contract with Atlanta.

"The most important factor was to be able to work with these young players and challenge them," Holik said. "I want to work harder than them in practice and in games and I think that really drives a team."

The Red Wings brought back their oldest player, signing captain Steve Yzerman and ensuring he will play his 22nd season in Detroit.

Yzerman's return wasn't certain. In his last game in 2004, Yzerman was struck in the face by a puck during a playoff game. He underwent surgery for a scratched cornea and multiple fractures below his left eye.

A year off caused by the NHL lockout and his free agent status created doubt he would continue his career.

"I think Steve has wanted to play, and we're thrilled to death that Steve's back," Red Wings senior vice president Jim Devellano said.

After losing defenseman Adrian Aucoin to the Chicago Blackhawks earlier Tuesday, the New York Islanders moved quickly to replace him with Alexei Zhitnik.

The longtime member of the Buffalo Sabres was given a four-year deal to solidify an uncertain defense corps on Long Island.

"The Islanders were at the top of my list of teams I wanted to play for," Zhitnik said.

One of GM Mike Milbury's biggest concerns going into the free agent season was the status of his defense. Only Janne Niinimaa had a contract going into next season, leaving Aucoin, Roman Hamrlik and Kenny Jonsson as free agents.

"Alexei is a perfect fit for us," Milbury said. "He's one of the best two-way defensemen in the game and he's a highly respected player. He's going to play big minutes for us in all situations."

Aucoin, who averaged more than 26 minutes of ice time per game during the 2003-04 season, signed a $16 million, four-year contract with Chicago. Jonsson is not expected to play in the NHL this season and Hamrlik is an unrestricted free agent.

The Rangers also made moves to fill in for lost pieces. New York signed forward Martin Straka away from the Los Angeles Kings, with the hope he will replace some of the offense Holik provided. Straka became expendable once the Kings signed three-time All-Star center Pavol Demitra to a three-year deal worth $13.5 million.

New York re-signed goalie Kevin Weekes to a two-year deal worth $1.9 million next season and $2 million in 2006-07. The Rangers also inked former Vancouver defenseman Marek Malik.

Straka had only 10 goals in 54 games split between Pittsburgh and Los Angeles in 2003-04. He reached 20 goals in three straight seasons with the Penguins, notching a career-high 35 in 1998-99.

"His skill will complement our team's offense and special teams play," Rangers GM Glen Sather said. "In addition, his strong leadership and willingness to compete every night will have a significant impact on our young talent."

That is exactly what the Panthers want out of Martin Gelinas, the 35-year-old forward who signed a two-year deal that will play him $925,000 next season and $975,000 the year after.

He joins Nieuwendyk and Roberts as mentors for the youngsters in the Panthers locker room. All three have played in at least 1,000 NHL games.

Florida boasts a youthful core, backed by goaltender Roberto Luongo, defenseman Jay Bouwmeester, and centers Stephen Weiss, Nathan Horton and Olli Jokinen -- none of whom are older than 26.

"Like Nieuwendyk and Roberts, Marty brings with him proven leadership and skills as well as a history of playoff success," Panthers general manager Mike Keenan said. "He knows what it takes to win and has the experience to help guide our younger players and accelerate the growth of our team."

Gelinas had 17 goals and 18 assists with Calgary as it advanced to the Stanley Cup finals in 2004.

But the defending Western Conference champs quickly signed forward Tony Amonte to a two-year contract worth $3.7 million. Amonte, along with John LeClair had their contracts bought out by Philadelphia last week.

The Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning also lost one of their pieces Tuesday when Cory Stillman signed a three-year deal with the Carolina Hurricanes.

Stillman, 31, was second among Lightning scorers and seventh in the NHL with 80 points in 81 games in 2003-04. He was third in assists with 55.

The Boston Bruins re-signed Glen Murray, brought back former Atlanta captain Shawn McEachern, and signed Dave Scatchard away from the Islanders.

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