Scott Gomez, Chris Drury and Daniel Briere, the top three centres available on the NHL’s free-agent market, all found new homes Sunday with the American-born Drury and Gomez both signing on in the Big Apple.
Gomez signed a US$51.5-million, seven-year deal while Drury agreed to a $35.25-million, five-year contract. The Philadelphia Flyers signed Briere to a $52-million, eight-year contract earlier on the first day of NHL free agency.
Winger Ryan Smyth remained the top name left on the free-agent market and he was getting plenty of interest around the league.
What started as a slow day ramped up with a number of signings, including Brian Rafalski going to Detroit and Mathieu Schneider to Anaheim, both veteran defencemen surprising many with those moves.
The Toronto Maple Leafs also got in the act when they signed 40-goal scorer Jason Blake and the Edmonton Oilers made a four-player trade to acquire the type of defenceman they’ve been craving in skilled blue-liner Joni Pitkanen.
Gomez, only 27, leaves the New Jersey Devils for the rival Rangers, signing a deal that will pay him $7.36 million per season, including a $10-million salary in the first season. Drury, 30, will earn $7.05 million per season, joining Briere in the exodus from the Buffalo Sabres.
Briere, like Gomez, will reel in $10 million next season in a front-loaded contract that will pay him an average of $6.5 million per season.
“Just looking at the Flyers, I think they’re building something special there,” Briere told The Canadian Press in a phone interview from Los Angeles, where he was camping out at his agent Pat Brisson’s office.
“I felt they were going in the right direction. I love to be part of an organization like that, one that’s willing to do whatever is necessary to win. After the season they had last year, they’re trying everything possible to turn that around.”
The last-place Flyers also added defencemen Kimmo Timonen and winger Scott Hartnell from Nashville two weeks ago, signalling they were serious about being competitive again.
Sources told CP that 10 teams made offers for the 29-year-old playmaker, and that it came down to a choice between Montreal and Philadelphia.
“It’s very flattering,” Briere said of the immense interest. “At the end we probably considered five or six teams really, really seriously. But somewhere and somehow a decision had to be made. And I went with my gut.
“I know some players in that organization (Martin Biron and Denis Gauthier) and I only got positive feedback from them.”
The Oilers made their mark with a big trade, acquiring Pitkanen and veteran winger Geoff Sanderson and a third-round draft choice in 2009 from the Philadelphia Flyers in exchange for defenceman Jason Smith and winger Joffrey Lupul.
It was not an easy move for Oilers GM Kevin Lowe to trade his captain in Smith, but he finally got his hands on the puck-moving defenceman in Pitkanen that he’s been looking for. Lupul was acquired in the Chris Pronger deal last summer and the Edmonton native leaves after only one disappointing season.
The Maple Leafs signed the unrestricted free agent Blake to a $20-million, five-year contract. Blake had a career-high 40 goals last season with the New York Islanders and now gives Toronto what it hopes is the first-line fit at wing captain Mats Sundin has long needed.
Meanwhile, the Stanley Cup champion Ducks signed Schneider to an $11.25-million, two-year deal while the Red Wings quickly filled Schneider’s void by signing Rafalski to a $30-million, five-year contract.
The 33-year-old Rafalski, a Michigan native, had a career-high 55 points (5-47) in 82 games with the New Jersey Devils last season, the only NHL club he’s ever played for.
The 38-year-old Schneider had 52 points (11-41) in 68 games with Detroit last season, his fourth season with the Red Wings. He will earn $5.5 million next season and $5.75 million in 2008-09. And he’s insurance in case superstar defenceman Scott Niedermayer decides to retire at 33 years old. That’s the indication Ducks GM Brian Burke got early Sunday.
“Like a great captain he called me this morning and said he was leaning towards retirement and didn’t want to see us miss an opportunity at adding a player,” Burke said on a conference call Sunday night. “So we jumped right in and are thrilled to have Mathieu Schneider on board.”
Burke added he had the go-ahead from ownership to keep all his high-priced defencemen, including Pronger as well, if Niedermayer does decide to come back.
Joe Thornton, meanwhile, made the first big splash Sunday, signing a $21.6-million, three-year extension with he San Jose Sharks.
“It was a no-brainer, I love it in San Jose,” Thornton told The Canadian Press. “It’s perfect for me.”
The new deal will pay him an average of $7.2 million a season starting in 2008-09. He will earn $6.67 million next season, the last year in a deal he signed in Boston after the NHL lockout.
The Dallas Stars made a similar move with Sergei Zubov on Sunday night, signing the star defenceman to a $5.35-million, one-year extension for the 2008-09 season. He was slated to be unrestricted after next season.
The Calgary Flames are close to also signing an extension with captain Jarome Iginla, who is slated to be unrestricted after next season. They’re also working on extension for defenceman Robyn Regehr, another player headed for unrestricted free agency after next season.
“I think we’re still working on the details of both of them,” Flames GM Darryl Sutter told reporters in Calgary. “There’s a lot more to it than just money. We’ll get it worked out.”
The Flames did sign a free agent Sunday, reeling in 28-year-old defenceman Cory Sarich with an $18-million, five-year contract.
In other moves Sunday:
-The Pittsburgh Penguins signed defenceman Ryan Whitney to a $24-million, six-year deal. Whitney was a restricted free agent.
-The Tampa Bay Lightning signed unrestricted free-agent winger Michel Ouellet to a $2.5-million, two-year deal. He was cut loose by Pittsburgh after putting up 48 points (19-29) in 73 games. Ouellet played with Tampa star Brad Richards in junior so the Lightning hope it’s a good fit.
-The Oilers signed unrestricted free agent defencemen Dick Tarnstrom and Denis Grebeshkov to one-year contracts. Tarnstrom played in Europe last year after finishing the 2005-06 season with Edmonton. Grebeshkov, who played in Russia last season, was acquired from the Islanders last February.
-The Washington Capitals signed unrestricted free-agent defenceman Tom Poti to a $14-million, four-year deal. He had 44 points (6-38) in 78 games with the Islanders last season.
-The Florida Panthers signed unrestricted free-agent winger Richard Zednik to a $3.25-million, two-year contract and unrestricted free-agent forward Brett McLean to a $5.1-million, three-year contract. The Panthers also signed winger Radek Dvorak to a two-year deal.
-The Chicago Blackhawks signed unrestricted free-agent centre Yanic Perreault to a $1.5-million, one-year contract. The 36-year-old had 38 points (21-17) in 66 games last season with Phoenix and Toronto.
-The Atlanta Thrashers signed unrestricted free agent Todd White to a $9.5-million, four-year contract. The 32-year-old centre had 44 points (13-31) in 77 games with the Minnesota Wild last season. The Thrashers also signed unrestricted free-agent forward Eric Perrin to a $1.5-million, two-year contract. He had 36 points (13-23) in 82 games with Tampa last season.
-The Carolina Hurricanes signed unrestricted free-agent forward Jeff Hamilton to a $1.6-million, two-year deal.
-The St. Louis Blues re-signed defenceman Barret Jackman to a $2.2-million, one-year deal. He was a restricted free agent.
-In a trade completed Saturday night but made official Sunday, the Boston Bruins acquired goalie Manny Fernandez from the Minnesota Wild winger Petr Kalus and a fourth-round pick in the 2009 NHL entry draft. The Bruins hope they’ve found their No. 1 netminder in Fernandez, who was expendable in Minnesota because of the emergence of Niklas Backstrom. The Bruins also signed unrestricted free-agent winger Shawn Thornton to a multi-year deal.
One player who ruled himself out of the market was forward Alexei Morozov, who led the Russian league in scoring last season. He had been telling people all year that he wanted to return to the NHL but the former Pittsburgh Penguin had a change of heart, his agent Jay Grossman telling CP on Sunday that he’ll play one more season with Ak Bars Kazan in Russia.