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Canucks put toe in free agent market but resist urge to make a splash

VANCOUVER - They kept a veteran defenceman in the fold and took a gamble on a forward with a history of knee problems, but the Vancouver Canucks stayed away from spending big money on Friday's first day of NHL free agency.

The Canucks signed defenceman Sami Salo to a US$2-million, one-year contract extension prior to becoming a free agent. Vancouver then dipped into the free-agent market to sign forward Marco Sturm to a one-year, $2.25 million deal.

Sturm, a 32-year-old from Dingolfing, Germany, is a former 20-goal scorer who has undergone two major knee operations. He split last year with Los Angeles and Washington.

The Canucks also signed forward Chris Higgins to a $3.8-million, two-year deal. The six-foot, 205-pound Higgins earned $1.6 million last season.

Heading into free agency, the Stanley Cup finalist Canucks were expected to look for a top-six forward and possibly another defenceman.

Mike Gillis, the Canucks general manager, said keeping Salo and Higgins was his first priority.

"We tried to get our guys signed,'' he said. "We were mostly successful with that.

"We still have a lot of options ahead of us. There's going to be a total secondary market. There's going to be a trade market that is emerging."

The money some teams threw at players surprised Gillis.

"This was a very thin marketplace,'' he said. "There were a lot of teams trying to get to the (salary) floor.

"They were paying big money and big terms for guys that don't really fit into our plans."

Salo said playing in a city he knows, on a team with a chance to win the Stanley Cup, made it worth taking a cut in pay. The native of Turku, Finland, earned $3.5 million last year.

"I felt we have a really good chance of doing something special, like we did last year," Salo said during a telephone conference call from his cottage in Finland. "We know it's a long road to get where we were last year.

"I felt there was a really good chance to do it again."

Sturm scored a combined five goals and 11 assists in 35 games with the Kings and Capitals last year. He had one goal and two assists in nine playoff games with Washington.

The six-foot, 194-pound Sturm has scored 20 or more goals seven times in his NHL career.

Gillis said signing Sturm is a gamble worth taking.

"As long as it's a short-term deal, we can kick the tires and see how he does,'' Gillis said. "He goes into the rough areas. He's a strong skater.

"He's had a couple of injuries that set him back. We are pretty confident he is going to be 100 per cent and be ready to go.''

The Canucks lost some size and grit when forward Raffi Torres left Vancouver for a $3.5-million, two-year contract with the Phoenix Coyotes. That's an increase from the $1 million the Canucks paid him last year.

Gillis also expects to lose free-agent forward Tanner Glass.

Salo, who turns 37 in September, battled back from a career-threatening Achilles tendon tear last season. In 27 regular-season games he had three goals and four assists.

He appeared in 21 playoff games during Vancouver's run to the Stanley Cup final, scoring three goals and adding two assists.

In the past, players like Kevin Bieksa, Ryan Kesler and twins Daniel and Henrik Sedin have all taken less money than they might have got somewhere else to stay in Vancouver.

"I was happy with my deal,'' said Salo. "I am in the latter part of my career. I know we have a real good team.

"Sometimes it takes different measures from different guys. Some guys take pay cuts, some guys get raises."

At six-foot-three and 215 pounds, Salo can play physical. He also has a booming shoot, which adds some bite to the Canuck power play.

Injuries have plagued Salo his entire career. It's estimated he's suffered 37 injuries, costing him over 250 games during his 12-year career in Vancouver and Ottawa. He was even bitten by a snake on a golf course once.

Salo started his career with Ottawa in 1998. He was traded to Vancouver in September 2002 for Peter Schaefer.

In 692 career NHL games for Ottawa and Vancouver, Salo has 84 goals and 280 points.

The Canucks picked up Higgins at the trade deadline from Florida. In 14 regular season games the 28-year-old native of Smithtown, N.Y., had two goals and three assists.

During the playoffs he scored four goals and eight points in 25 games.

"He has a lot more to give,'' said Gillis. "We like the way he controls the puck.''

Higgins has 105 goals and 91 assists in 411 career games with Montreal, the New York Rangers, Calgary, Florida and Vancouver.

Speedy Mason Raymond will miss the start of next season with a vertebrae compression fracture while Mikael Samuelsson had undergone adductor tendon and sports hernia surgery.

The Canucks decided to pass on players likes Tomas Fleischmann and Joel Ward after they received long-term offers from other teams.

"We are not going to saddle this organization with long-term contracts for players that are good NHL players, but not great NHL players,'' said Gillis.

He hinted the Canucks might be active in the trade market over the summer.

"We are going to continue to try to get better,'' Gillis said. "We do have players that are highly sought after.

"We will see how it turns out."


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