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New GMs Yzerman, Tallon and Dudley taking careful approach to free agency

Steve Yzerman is fond of preaching patience and the new general manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning is taking his own advice as he builds his team.

Yzerman dipped into the free-agent market on Friday to bring back a familiar face, signing defenceman Pavel Kubina to a US$7.7 million, two-year deal.

It might not be the kind of signing that jumps out from the flurry of free-agent moves, but it's one that should make the Lightning better. Kubina was a member of the Tampa team that won the Stanley Cup in 2004 and considers the city a second home.

"He is a big, physical defenceman who will play the point on the power play," Yzerman said in a statement. "He was well-liked by his teammates during his previous time here in Tampa Bay and we're happy to welcome him back. I know Pavel had other options and I would like to thank him for deciding to rejoin us."

Yzerman was hired by the Lightning at the end of May and has slowly started putting his stamp on the team. On Thursday, he signed Martin St. Louis to a four-year extension, brought in free-agent goaltender Dan Ellis and dealt defenceman Andrej Meszaros and his big-ticket contract to Philadelphia for a draft pick.

In addition to acquiring Kubina on Friday, he also signed veteran Swedish forward Niklas Persson to a two-way deal.

Two of Yzerman's colleagues appear to be retooling their roster in much the same way—Florida Panthers GM Dale Tallon and Altanta Thrashers GM Rick Dudley. Interestingly, they've both also recently assumed the post with teams that are trying to make strides in the Southeast Division.

Tallon's first move in free agency was to sign winger Chris Higgins to a $1.6-million, one-year contract Friday. The 27-year-old is expected to assume a scoring role with one of the team's top two lines.

"We've got (David) Booth and Higgins on the left side," Tallon said on a conference call. "That's pretty damn good."

The Southeast Division was the weakest in the NHL last season, with the Presidents' Trophy-winning Washington Capitals the only team to qualify for the playoffs. They finished 38 points ahead of second-place Atlanta.

While the Capitals seem poised to remain among the elite, the others are hoping a patient approach will allow them to start narrowing the gap.

The second day of free agency was mostly about bargain hunting. The New York Islanders were one of the most active teams, signing defencemen Mark Eaton ($5-million, two-year deal) and Milan Jurcina ($1 million, one year), along with forwards P.A. Parenteau ($600,000, one year) and Zenon Konopka (one year).

Some of the biggest names were still in limbo. Star winger Ilya Kovalchuk, who will likely command the biggest salary of this free-agent class, continued to weigh his options while goaltenders Evgeni Nabokov and Marty Turco also remained available.

A number of players with a lower profile put their signatures on contracts.

Speedy centre Matthew Lombardi signed in Nashville ($10.5 million, three years), forward Cody McCormick landed in Buffalo ($500,000, one year), tough guy Steve McIntyre returned to Edmonton ($700,000, one year) and Calgary added gritty forwards Raitis Ivanans ($1.2 million, two years) and Tim Jackman ($1.1 million, one year).

Higgins has seen his production drop while struggling with injuries over the past two seasons, but the Panthers believe he'll rebound. If that happens, his $1.6-million contract might end up looking like a bargain.

"This is a bounce-back year for him," said Tallon. "He wanted to be here. He had three 20-goal seasons in a row (with Montreal) and is coming off a tough year. He wants to prove his worth and he thinks we're going in right direction.

"I think he'll be a wonderful addition."

For Higgins, one of the best things about Florida is the presence of Tallon, who essentially built the Chicago Blackhawks team that won the Stanley Cup in June. After a long run of futility, he believes things are headed in the right direction.

"Dale taking over was pretty appealing to me," said Higgins. "I want to prove myself to a new organization that has high hopes for their players. ...

"I think Dale will put his fingerprint on the organization and he wanted me to come and be a part of it."

The same is being felt across the state, where Yzerman intends to take his time and build the Lightning back into a winner. That was the No. 1 reason St. Louis decided to sign a long-term extension on Thursday that will likely carry him into retirement.

"I think the bad weather is behind us," said St. Louis.



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