PHILADELPHIA – On the western side of Pennsylvania sits The Steel City. On the other side, at least in hockey circles, sits The Steal City.
The new-look Philadelphia Flyers were at it again on Friday, as they tore through the first day of free agency with four signings, two of which hurt the rival Pittsburgh Penguins across the state, and a trade.
Within a matter of hours, free-agent forwards Jaromir Jagr and Maxime Talbot signed deals with the Atlantic Division champions. Jagr, 39, a 1990 first-round pick of the Penguins, snared a one-year deal worth US$3.3 million, and Talbot, 27, who scored a game-winning Stanley Cup goal for the Penguins, signed a five-year deal worth $9 million.
“It’s going to be tough on us,” Talbot said when asked how the Pittsburgh fans might react when they first see he and Jagr in Flyers uniforms. “It was tough for me to leave in the first place, as my heart has always been with the Pittsburgh Penguins. But at the same time, it’s a new challenge for me in Philly. It’s going to be real interesting.”
The marquee signing, though, was Jagr, who had a $2 million offer from the Penguins on the table all week, before Pittsburgh general manager Ray Shero withdrew it on Friday morning.
“Jaromir Jagr is one of the better players in the game. He’s a big body in front of the net, and he’s still a very good player,” Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren said. “People forget about him because he’s been out of the league for three seasons. But he can still play at this level.”
Jagr, who played the last three seasons in Russia and also considered the Red Wings this week, helped lead the Penguins to two Stanley Cup titles in the 1990s. He also played for the Rangers and Capitals.
“We made what we thought was a very fair contract offer to Jaromir on Tuesday, based on his stated interest of returning to the Penguins,” Shero said. “We made our best offer from the start, given our salary-cap structure, in an attempt to facilitate a deal. But now, after several days, with an extended time frame for making a decision, and additional teams getting involved, we have decided to move in a different direction.”
As have the Flyers, who last week shipped out high-scoring forwards Jeff Carter (Columbus), and Mike Richards (Los Angeles), and signed goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov, after acquiring his rights from Phoenix. Jagr will be looked upon to provide some of that missing scoring punch. After all, he has 646 career NHL goals, and when he slips on that orange-and-black uniform for the first time next regular season, he will be the NHL’s active scoring leader with 1,599 points.
“Jaromir—it goes without saying—is a gifted player, and over the last few years, fitness has been a real big thing for him,” Holmgren said. “He’s real big on training now, and looking out for himself.
“I know the other teams he was looking at were good teams. But he picked us and that’s exciting.”
Though they are connected through their Pittsburgh ties, Talbot and Jagr have never played on the same team. Talbot had eight goals and 21 points last season. He was a minus-3 for the year and finished with 66 minutes in penalties as Pittsburgh totalled 106 points.
“I think it’s the right thing for me to do,” Talbot said. “It’s the best team that I could go with.”
The feeling was mutual.
“Maxime was a guy we identified right away,” Holmgren said. “He was certainly one of our first phone calls.”
A Czech native, Jagr won an Olympic gold medal in 1998 and a bronze in 2006. He also won two Ice Hockey World Championships in 2005 and 2010. Jagr’s agent is former NHL defenceman Petr Svoboda, who, interestingly enough, played five seasons with the Flyers.
“Never met the guy, but I’ve heard about him,” Talbot said of Jagr. “He showed at the World Championships that he can definitely still play. I remember playing against him, and that was tough. He was so big, and so strong on the puck.”
The Flyers also signed free-agent defenceman Andreas Lilja, 35, away from the Anaheim Ducks, and gave a contract extension to right wing Jakub Voracek, 22, acquired from Columbus in the Jeff Carter trade last week.
“I believe in the changes, I believe in this team,” Talbot said. “Two years ago, they were in the Stanley Cup final, so I’m going to an exciting place.”
The Flyers, who lost to Chicago in 2010 Stanley Cup finals in six games, finished with 106 points last season and won the Atlantic Division title on a tiebreaker ahead of the Penguins, of all teams. Philadelphia outlasted Buffalo in seven games in Round 1, but was swept out of the post-season in Round 2 by eventual Stanley Cup-champion Boston.
There were some departures from Philadelphia on Friday, as well. Free-agent forward Ville Leino signed a six-year contract with Buffalo, and forward Kris Versteeg was traded to Florida for two draft picks.
Leino finished fifth on the Flyers last season with a career-best 53 points (19 goals). From Finland, Leino now has 30 goals and 73 points in 149 career games split between the Flyers and Red Wings over four years. He will earn $27 million over the life of his Sabres deal.
“Ville had a lot of offers out there, and we’re happy for him,” Holmgren said. “We wish him nothing but the best.”
Versteeg, who won the Stanley Cup with Chicago in 2010, was acquired by Philadelphia from Toronto at midseason. He finished with 21 goals and 46 points on the season, but had only seven and 11 with the Flyers.
“Kris is a skilled young winger and a Stanley Cup winner that has scored more than 20 goals in each of the last three seasons and will make an immediate impact on our team,” Panthers general manager Dale Tallon said. “He is versatile enough to play any forward position and brings passion and commitment to the rink every single day.”
For Versteeg, the Flyers acquired a conditional second-round draft pick in 2012 or 2013, and San Jose’s third-round pick in the 2012, which was previously acquired by the Panthers.
Despite the flurry, Holmgren made mention of the fact that the Flyers still have “a little bit of flexibility” to make another move. Whether or not that means Philadelphia will make a strong push for Brad Richards, the marquee forward in this class, remains to be seen.
“We talked to the agent a few times,” Holmgren said of Brad Richards. “I think they’re going to take their time, so we really don’t know what they’re going to do.
“But we’re still looking.”