The Vancouver Canucks and Los Angeles Kings lost their captains Thursday while the New York Rangers likely said goodbye to one.
Markus Naslund’s US$8-million, two-year deal with the Rangers stole the spotlight on Day 3 of NHL free agency Thursday, and his departure from Vancouver for New York also signalled the probable end of fellow star winger Jaromir Jagr with the Blueshirts.
Another surprise saw Kings captain Rob Blake bolt north to San Jose where the 38-year-old star hopes to win again while earning $5 million next season on a one-year deal.
The day began with the Pittsburgh Penguins locking up another key piece of their contending team, signing goalie Marc-Andre Fleury to a $35-million, seven-year deal.
But the headliner was easily in New York, where Naslund’s arrival coincided with Jagr’s departure.
There’s only so much money to spend under the salary cap and Rangers GM Glen Sather grew impatient waiting for the situation with Jagr to figure itself out. So he called the 36-year-old Czech star on Thursday and said the Rangers were moving on. Then he sealed the deal with Naslund.
“We talked about his time here and his experience and he thanked me for it and I thanked him,” Sather said on a conference call. “It was a very cordial parting. You just can’t wait forever on these kinds of things.”
Jagr has a serious offer in Russia, a deal Sather hinted Jagr might take.
“I told him if things didn’t work out for him in Russia that he could call us back and we could see what we could do,” said Sather. “But at this time we’re moving on in a different direction.”
So what now for Jagr?
“Jaromir hasn’t made a decision yet on whether he will play in the NHL or the Russian Continental league,” Jagr’s agent Pat Brisson told The Canadian Press on Thursday night.
Naslund, meanwhile, surprised the hockey world. There had not been any rumours linking him to the Big Apple. And while most of the focus in the opening 48 hours of free agency was centred on Vancouver’s $20-million, two-year offer to lure Toronto captain Mats Sundin to the West Coast, it was Vancouver’s longtime captain that instead bolted.
“It’s not an easy thing,” Naslund said on a conference call from Sweden. “I’ve been in Vancouver a long time. I’ve been a captain there for the last eight years. I have very fond memories of playing in that city and all that comes with that.
“The fan base that’s there, the organization has treated me first-class all the way. It’s definitely a big step but it’s a step that I’m excited to take.”
But he made one thing clear. The Rangers were his No. 1 target all along.
“Right from noon on July 1, my eyes have been set on the Rangers and it ended up taking a little bit longer but I’m very pleased I’m a Ranger now,” said Naslund, who turns 35 later this month.
The Montreal Canadiens, who had also made a pitch to Sundin before the big Swede announced he needed a few weeks to mull things over, finally got into the mix Thursday. The Habs signed 31-year-old tough guy Georges Laraque to a $4.5-million, three-year contract and also added some depth in goal with Marc Denis.
The six-foot-three, 243-pound Laraque returns home to Montreal, joining a team that hasn’t had a true heavyweight in a few years.
“I felt over the course of last season as our team started to improve, our players gained more and more attention and trying to push them away from good skilled play meant playing a more robust style against them,” said Canadiens GM Bob Gainey. “I think we worked hard on having or players protect themselves and have confidence in the referee. I think Georges will just tip the scales and give all our team a little more space.”
Denis, bought out by the Tampa Bay Lightning last month, signed a one-year, two-way deal. He begins the season as the No. 3 goalie in the organization behind Carey Price and Jaroslav Halak and will likely begin the season with the American Hockey League’s Hamilton Bulldogs.
The Penguins were also busy, not only taking care of Fleury but also trying to fill the holes offence left by the free-agent defections of Ryan Malone and Marian Hossa. Pittsburgh signed a pair of veteran wingers, Miro Satan to a $3.5-million, one-year deal and Ruslan Fedotenko to a $2.25-million, one-year deal.
“Both players are on one-year deals, they’re going to be motivated,” Penguins GM Ray Shero told The Canadian Press. “Satan said right away when I talked to him, ‘I watched you guys a lot last year and felt that’s a place I have to get to. That’s where I want to play.’ He took a one-year deal to it.”
“It does give us a balanced forward group.”
The key, however, was getting Fleury done, one day after also locking up star centre Evgeni Malkin and defenceman Brooks Orpik.
“He would have been unrestricted in two years,” Shero said of Fleury, 23. “You look around, it’s hard to get quality goaltending. You see older unrestricted goalies now and teams are having to pay a premium for their services.
“But getting five unrestricted years from Marc-Andre, the cap number is manageable and at the same time it gives him security. This is where he wants to be.”
In other notable moves Thursday:
-The Toronto Maple Leafs acquired forward Mikhail Grabovski from Montreal in exchange for prospect Greg Pateryn and a second-round draft pick in 2010. The Leafs also re-signed forward Dominic Moore.
-The Minnesota Wild signed unrestricted free-agent forward Antti Miettinen to a three-year contract.
-The Rangers also signed defenceman Dmitri Kalinin to a one-year contract.
-The Phoenix Coyotes signed unrestricted free-agent defenceman David Hale to a $1.4-million, two-year deal and re-signed defenceman Matt Jones to a two-year contract. The Coyotes also signed tough guy Brian McGrattan to a one-year deal.
-The St. Louis Blues re-signed forward Yan Stastny to a two-year contract.
-The Colorado Avalanche signed unrestricted free-agent defenceman Daniel Tjarnqvist to a one-year contract.
-The Washington Capitals signed unrestricted free-agent forward Keith Aucoin to a two-year contract.
The Rangers also broke ties with Martin Straka. The 35-year-old winger informed the NHL team on Thursday that he’s going to play in Europe next season.
“His agent told me this morning that he was going to accept an offer in Europe and if I couldn’t give him a decision this morning that he was going to move on,” said Sather. “I told him if he needed a decision at 9 a.m. I wasn’t prepared to give him a yes. I said if he wasn’t willing to wait any longer then he’d have to go on with his life. That’s the way it happened.”
Said Straka’s agent Ritch Winter: “Marty has advised the Rangers, he will not consider playing there anymore. He will pursue his other options, despite the Rangers advising him they were willing to consider making him an offer at some point.”
Sather indicated, however, that there’s still a place for veteran winger Brendan Shanahan, another unrestricted free agent.
“I wouldn’t say the door is closed there,” said Sather. “There’s still some ongoing things to be done here. He’s told me that he wants to play in New York and he’ll do whatever it takes to play here. He’s not out of the equation.”
In San Jose, GM Doug Wilson was thrilled to add Blake, the kind of championship experience the talented yet frustrating Sharks need.
“There’s a bit of a theme you’re seeing,” said Wilson. “Our head coach (former Detroit assistant Todd McLellan) won a Cup a little while ago, Rob Blake won a Cup. It’s a couple of pieces we needed to add to this team to get to where we wanted to get to.”
Blake goes from a rebuilding team in Los Angeles to a team in San Jose that’s knocking on the door.
“San Jose has had a couple of disappointment losses the last couple of years, frustrating losses in the playoffs, and sometimes you need that to get past it and make the next step,” said Blake. “I see this as a very hungry team.
“Obviously I think their leaders in Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau are hungry to take that next level of winning. If I can come in and help provide a little spark to that, all the better.”