The 36-year-old right winger had nearly the same reaction moments later when he saw the ‘C’ on his brand-new Islanders jersey. Guerin had no idea he had already been chosen by general manager Garth Snow and coach Ted Nolan to be the 11th captain in team history.
Guerin was formally introduced to Long Island on Monday, less than a week after signing a two-year deal with the Islanders. Outside of a four-game, injury fill-in stint in Edmonton, Guerin hasn’t served as an NHL captain.
“I’m a little surprised,” he said, drawing laughter from a banquet room filled with team sponsors, fans and media. “I’m thrilled about it. It’s a tremendous honour. I don’t take this responsibility lightly.”
He donned the team’s blue sweater after his three new teammates Mike Comrie, Ruslan Fedotenko, and Jon Sim – all fellow free-agent acquisitions – stepped up to accept their jerseys from Snow.
Guerin is the latest fresh face of the Islanders, a franchise that still embraces its dynasty days of the 1980s while trying to matter again in the 30-team NHL. New York is looking for Guerin to show the form that led to a 36-goal campaign last season with St. Louis and San Jose, and not the 13-goal output he posted the season before with Dallas.
“I think I’ve been closer to the 30 goals more than 13,” said Guerin, who has hit the mark five times in 14 full NHL seasons. “I think it was just a bad year.”
So do the Islanders, who will pay him US$9 million over two seasons.
When the free-agent signing period opened, the Islanders were hit hard by defections. In the first few hours, New York lost leading goal-scorer and point-getter Jason Blake, and Ryan Smyth – who would’ve taken over as captain for the departed Alexei Yashin had Smyth not bolted for Colorado.
Yashin, the previous face of the franchise, never produced enough to justify his long, expensive contract. The Islanders cut ties with him last month, buying him out of the deal and looking again to reconstruct the team that made the playoffs four of the past five seasons but hasn’t won a series.
After a push to secure a playoff spot on the last day of the season, the Islanders were eliminated by Buffalo in five games. It was New York’s third, five-game defeat in the first round, dating to 2002.
“This is an organization with a wonderful history, with a committed owner, a committed general manager, players who want to be here and players who want to win,” Guerin said. “That’s what we plan on doing. There’s a long way to go, we’ve got a lot of work in front of us, but we’re going to do it together.
“We’re going to play as a team.”
Guerin, centre Comrie and left winger Fedotenko likely will comprise the Islanders’ new top line.
Comrie and Guerin, who knew each other from their days with the Oilers, spoke last week before signing. They weren’t exactly a package deal, but came as close to being one as possible.
Comrie, who scored 20 goals splitting time with Phoenix and Eastern Conference champion Ottawa last season, is joining his fifth team in five seasons. A former star, who fell out of favour with the hometown Oilers, he is looking forward to the chance to be a No. 1 centre.
“Being 26, life is full of a lot of different opportunities,” Comrie said. “The one-year contract gives me a year to prove myself. They’re going to give me a great opportunity to play some minutes and play with some skilled players.”
Sim was the first to sign, agreeing to a three-year, $3 million deal around the departures of Blake and Smyth on Day 1. Fedotenko followed on July 4 with a one-year contract for $2.9 million.
Comrie, who received a good review of the Islanders from Smyth, signed a few hours after Guerin last Thursday, taking a one-year deal worth $3.375 million.
That leaves the Islanders about $16 million under the $50.3 million salary cap.
“I am authorised to spend as much as it takes to bring a Stanley Cup here,” Snow said. “That being said, we’re going to make sure it’s the right people at the right price.”
Snow expects to re-sign forward Chris Simon, who still has five games left on a 25-game suspension for his stick-swinging attack against Ryan Hollweg of the New York Rangers.
The GM wouldn’t comment about other potential free-agent signings, but defenceman Sheldon Souray, who scored 26 goals with Montreal last season, could be on the radar. Forward Trent Hunter and defenceman Chris Campoli are restricted free agents, who haven’t re-signed yet with the Islanders.
They are set in goal, with Rick DiPietro under contract for the next 14 seasons.
Snow was noncommittal whether the team would bring back unrestricted free agent forward Arron Asham, who provided grit and 11 goals last season. His role could be filled by Sim, who scored 17 times with Atlanta.
“We have a lot of flexibility and we have a good team,” he said. “We prepared for different scenarios and this is one of them. I’m just looking forward to adding the final pieces.”