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Oilers sign free-agent defenceman Sheldon Souray to five-year contract

The free-agent defenceman spent much of Thursday morning talking to friends and family who were thrilled to hear he'd decided on Edmonton - where he'll play close to his hometown of Elk Point, Alta.

"I don't even know if the microphone works anymore because people were screaming into it all morning," Souray said of his phone. "It's exciting for my family and everyone involved on my side."

It's just as exciting for the Oilers.

Much of the talk around that team since July 1 has been centred on its inability to lure big-name free agents. Michael Nylander backed out on a verbal agreement with Edmonton while others turned down offers outright.

Thomas Vanek signed an offer sheet to play in the City of Champions, but the Buffalo Sabres match the offer and retained the restricted free agent.

Despite all that, Oilers GM Kevin Lowe says he didn't feel any pressure to make a statement by signing a guy like Souray.

"I think that a lot of the speculation recently is a little overblown," explained Lowe. "Yeah, there are some players that don't necessarily want to play in Edmonton, but I think those players have other markets they wouldn't want to play in as well.

"I always knew there was going to players that would choose Edmonton over other markets. Sheldon is an example of that."

The 31-year-old spent the past seven years in Montreal and became an unrestricted free agent for the first time.

After posting career highs in goals (26), assists (38) and points (64) last year, he had different options to consider and says he took his time to make sure he made the right decision.

"More than any other choice I had, I was more comfortable with (going to Edmonton)," said Souray. "My heart was in it. It wasn't about the money, it wasn't about whatever. I had a lot of different factors.

"It's just came down at the very end, it wasn't really a hard decision at all. And one that actually I'm getting more excited about every time I think about putting on the uniform."

Souray said that the Canadiens made a "serious push" late in his negotiations.

That might surprise Habs fans who assumed he was gone for good after Montreal signed defenceman Roman Hamrlik to a US$22-million, four-year deal at the start of July.

The biggest question surrounding Souray is how he'll play defensively. He was minus-28 last year on a Canadiens team that often struggled while playing at even strength.

Some might also wonder how he'll back up a career-year offensively, but that's of little concern to Souray himself.

"I want to improve not on the numbers, but on my all-around game," he said. "And continue just to try and be a leader and to do the things the organization's going to expect me to do coming in there."

The Oilers struggled at the end of last season and ended up falling 25 points short of a playoff spot one year after playing in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final.

Lowe isn't expecting Souray to step in and single-handedly turn the ship around.

"We've added a really nice element," said Lowe. "It helps stabilize the organization in some respect.

"But we're not going to rely on Sheldon to carry us on his shoulders into the playoffs. It's an important piece of the puzzle."

The general fit for both sides was the key to this deal.

Souray was asked how his wife Angelica felt about moving to Edmonton - a rather touchy subject after Chris Pronger's unhappy wife forced him to ask the Oilers for a trade last summer.

"She's happy," said Souray. "She's familiar with the city - put it that way.

"You don't make decisions for five years of your life on your own."

He's certainly comfortable with the scrutiny that will come in hockey-mad market.

"I don't think when you play in a Canadian city like Edmonton or Montreal that there is such a thing as flying under the radar," said Souray. "It comes with the territory. It's part of our jobs. . . .

"I'm not coming from a place like Florida. I'm not going to be overwhelmed, I know that for sure."


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