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Lightning continue to wheel and deal before free agency even opens

The Hockey News

The Hockey News

The Tampa Bay Lightning were intent on stealing the show before the curtain was even raised for this year's NHL free agency period.

New owners Oren Koules and Len Barrie continued to make a splash, taking away one of the bigger names off the free-agent list in winger Ryan Malone and trying very hard Monday to do the same with forward Brian Rolston.

The Lightning finally made official Monday night a US$31.5-million, seven-year deal with the 28-year-old Malone.

"Ryan's signing is a great validation of the organization's plans and desires as we move forward," Koules and Barrie said in a joint statement. "He fits our strategic plan of adding quality players with a warrior mentality."

Malone's rights were acquired from Pittsburgh along with those of 42-year-old Gary Roberts on Saturday. Both players were slated to be unrestricted free agents Tuesday.

Roberts agreed to a one-year contract worth $1.25 million in base salary and could be worth more than $2 million if he played all 82 games thanks to a $10,000-per-game played bonus.

Rolston, 35, whose rights were acquired Sunday from Minnesota, still had not agreed to a deal with his new team Monday. He was to become an unrestricted free agent Tuesday at noon ET.

"It's too early to say," Rolston's agent Stephen Bartlett told The Canadian Press on Monday afternoon. "We've had some discussions obviously with Tampa once they traded for his rights. It should come as no surprise they were obviously aggressive in trying to get us to consider signing before tomorrow but I can't honestly say at this point whether we will or we won't.

"We'll continue to talk today ... Things could heat up in a matter of hours but right now there's nothing imminent."

Reached again Monday night via e-mail, Bartlett said there was nothing new to report. But sources say the Lightning were making a heavy pitch to sign Rolston.

Koules and Barrie have been on the job for less than two weeks and already have also come to a basic agreement on a $77-million, nine-year agreement with superstar centre Vincent Lecavalier, a deal that should be officially announced in mid-July.

They also agreed to a $14-million, four-year contract with winger Vaclav Prospal last week, a deal that was finally announced Monday. The contract also includes a no-movement clause.

The Montreal Canadiens had hoped to sign Mats Sundin by Tuesday but that appears unlikely. Habs GM Bob Gainey exchanged e-mails with the 37-year-old star centre again over the weekend but to no avail.

"After thinking about things for quite a long time, and after listening to what Bob had to say, Mats still has not made a decision on whether he will play next season," Sundin's agent J.P. Barry told The Canadian Press on Monday. "He knows that there was a wonderful opportunity in Montreal and he's very appreciative of the way that Bob handled the discussions over the past week."

So Sundin, still unsure about his playing future, hits the unrestricted free-agent market Tuesday with Detroit and the New York Rangers among the teams expected to chase him along with Montreal.

"Mats has not closed any doors and will simply listen to all the options that are presented to him over the next while," added Barry.

The Rangers, meanwhile, were still in talks Monday with Pat Brisson, the agent for unrestricted free-agent Jaromir Jagr. The star winger arrived in New York from the Czech Republic late Monday afternoon. The 36-year-old also has a standing offer from Omsk in Russia.

Jagr could join winger Marian Hossa and defenceman Brian Campbell other big names when free agency opens Tuesday.

Andreas Lilja will not join them on the open market. The 27-year-old Swedish defenceman agreed to a $2.5-million, two-year contract Monday night. He would have been an unrestricted free agent Tuesday.

A couple of restricted free agents also re-signed Monday, forward Paul Gaustad signing a $9.2-million, four-year deal with the Buffalo Sabres and forward Rostislav Olesz agreeing to an $18.75-million, six-year deal with the Florida Panthers.

A restricted free agent on the verge of a new deal is Anaheim Ducks star Corey Perry. The 23-year-old forward led the Ducks with 29 goals last season and his agent Pat Morris has been trying to get a deal done with Anaheim assistant GM David McNab.

"David McNab and Pat Morris have worked diligently at this for well over a week and we remain optimistic that it will get done but there is not a deal yet," Ducks GM Brian Burke told The Canadian Press on Monday night.

The Edmonton Oilers were busy on the eve of free agency. They had struggled to lure unrestricted free agents in recent years so GM Kevin Lowe took the offensive before free agency even began, pulling the trigger on a major deal that saw quality, puck-moving defenceman Lubomir Visnovsky from the Los Angeles Kings in exchange for forward Jarret Stoll and defenceman Matt Greene.

Visnovsky is entering a $28-million, five-year extension he signed last summer with Los Angeles, the $5.6-million average salary probably less than what a defenceman of his calibre will fetch this week on the unrestricted free-agent market.

The move by Lowe could also signal the end of blue-liner Joni Pitkanen in Edmonton. He was already a player rumoured to be on the move for several weeks and the acquisition of Visnovski seemingly makes him expendable.

For the Kings, the rebuilding continues. Just over a week after sending one of their top forwards in Mike Cammalleri packing to Calgary, Kings GM Dean Lombardi unloaded his top blue-liner to Edmonton.

"It's the idea of putting together a young group of players that have a chance at becoming a bona fide contender," Lombardi said on a conference call Monday.

Whether or not Rob Blake remains part of the plan remains to be seen. The 38-year-old defenceman becomes an unrestricted free agent Tuesday.

"I've had a number of meetings with Blake," said Lombardi. "A player of Blake's stature and pedigree and the incredible influence he has on young players, it's critical he understands the role and the direction we're headed ... If he understands that and wants to be part of it, we clearly welcome him back with open arms. And I'm hoping he does.

"I had a talk with his agent (Pat Brisson) last night. And I don't want to talk for (Blake), but I think there's a chance we're going to be a match.'


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