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Gomez and Drury share New York spotlight as Rangers reload up front

Chris Drury then took a little something away, showing off the winning form that made him just as attractive to the Rangers when they went shopping for NHL centres on the first day of free agency.

New York introduced their two major acquisitions Monday, and the new teammates immediately had to work out a minor problem.

Gomez and Drury both have worn No. 23 while winning three Stanley Cups between them for their former teams.

When they came into the team's practice facility for the first time, each had their name and No. 23 stitched on the back of a new Rangers sweater, but they knew that couldn't last forever.

So general manager Glen Sather tossed a puck to see which one would keep the number, and like he has since his days as a Little Leaguer in nearby Trumbull, Conn., Drury came out on top again.

"We flipped and I lost," Gomez said. "I wonder if I can go back and be a free agent to get my number back."

Gomez kidded that maybe over dinner and drinks he could convince Drury to give him No. 23, the one Rangers fans are so used to seeing in the red and black sweater of the rival New Jersey Devils.

Gomez was the first to sign with the Rangers on Sunday, agreeing to a seven-year deal worth US$51.5 million - including $10 million next season. Drury left the Buffalo Sabres - the team that knocked New York out of the playoffs last season - for a five-year, $35.25 million contract.

"As a kid, this was the team," Drury said. "Where I'm from, there's nothing bigger, better than the Rangers. Watching them win the Cup, I was a little bit older, but coming to Madison Square Garden, Brian Leetch, you name it, this was the place."

Neither was aware that the other was in the mix to come to New York. The Rangers were expected to bring back top-line centre Michael Nylander to continue playing alongside captain Jaromir Jagr. When that deal fell through - Nylander went on to sign with the Washington Capitals on Monday - the Rangers had the resources and the openings to land two of the best available centres.

In the pre-lockout NHL, the Rangers had the reputation of trying to buy championships. But outside of the Cup title in 1994 that broke a 54-year drought, the team failed to get its money's worth.

The salary cap helped the Rangers try a different approach of building from within, then supplementing with outside help. They now work under the same financial restrictions of the other 29 teams and can't spend beyond $50.3 million next season.

Their only move Monday was to re-sign journeyman defenceman Jason Strudwick.

"We've stayed true to our word in that we've developed a culture here now that suggests internal accountability," Rangers coach Tom Renney said. "We wanted to make sure that the culture was such that we could integrate the proper free agent into our lineup. So quite honestly, nothing's changed in our mind anyway."

When the 27-year-old Gomez didn't receive a significant offer from the Devils, he had a feeling the time had come for both sides to move on. Pairing with Drury was an unexpected bonus.

"I found out he was thinking about New York. I was like, 'Wow,"' Gomez said. "I want to come here to win but by the end of the day, when he was on the team, the chances go up tremendously.

"That's what I was most excited about yesterday. Then he took my number so I take all that back."

Drury has beaten Gomez before. Back in 2001, he and the Avalanche pulled out a Game 7 victory with the Stanley Cup on the line.

Along with being a great two-way player, who is strong on faceoffs, and a topflight penalty-killer, Drury has the intangible of being a winner. The Rangers saw that firsthand this spring when they had a chance to beat Buffalo for a third straight time and take the lead in their second-round series. But Drury scored the tying goal with 7.7 seconds left.

The Sabres won Game 5 in overtime and wrapped up the series two days later.

"He certainly has a sense of timing as to when he is able to accomplish more extraordinary things as an athlete," Renney said. "I think he allows others to pursue similar objectives because he brings out the best in his teammates and puts them in position to be winners, too."

Drury, 30, grew up a Rangers fan, and was also excited to come home in a sense. He is far less effusive than Gomez and likely to stay out of the spotlight - if he can.

He even stepped out of the conference room where he and Gomez talked to reporters so he could cool off. Gomez, who spent seven seasons playing with New Jersey, didn't miss a beat.

Drury returned moments later, took off the sweater, sat away from the table and leaned back in his chair.

"There's only one stage and that's New York," Gomez said. "It's the biggest stage there is in the world, Madison Square Garden. There's pressure, but that's what makes it fun when you go to work every day."


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