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Phone call from Joe Sakic the icing on the cake for Ryan Smyth

The Colorado Avalanche, New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers and Washington Capitals all got better, while the Buffalo Sabres, New Jersey Devils and New York Islanders were ravaged by key departures.

The Avs were already an up-and-coming club and then added defenceman Scott Hannan and the big prize, star winger Ryan Smyth.

A phone call from Canada's last Olympic captain sealed the deal for Captain Canada to join the Avs.

"Joe Sakic called me and helped the process along," Ryan Smyth told The Canadian Press in an interview Monday.

The two were teammates at the 2002 Salt Lake Games and 2006 Turin Olympics as well as the 2004 World Cup of Hockey.

"It was like the icing on the cake," added Smyth. "Joe as everybody knows is a world-class player, he's a future Hockey Hall of Famer. The guys handles himself with a great deal of class. There's no question he was an influence on it."

Smyth, 31, signed a US$31.25-million, five-year deal with the Avs, choosing among many suitors.

"It was very flattering how many teams were interested in us," said Smyth. "It was a hard decision. You look at the New York Islanders and what they gave up for me during the year. We have a great deal of respect for that organization and how they dealt with us. They were in the mix right to the end.

"Montreal made a huge pitch, Calgary was interested," added Smyth. "So we had some tough decisions to make but at the end of the day we felt Colorado was a great place to hang our hat."

The Canadiens were also runners-up for star centre Daniel Briere, who ended up signing a monster $52-million, eight-year deal in Philadelphia. But Habs GM Bob Gainey got in the act Monday, reeling in top defenceman Roman Hamrlik, a solid addition, and veteran centre Bryan Smolinski.

There was no silver lining for the Islanders, Devils and Sabres. The Islanders lost five free agents when Smyth went to Colorado, winger Jason Blake signed in Toronto, forward Viktor Kozlov and top defenceman Tom Poti went to Washington and winger Richard Zednik signed in Florida. Ouch.

The Devils, meanwhile, lost No. 1 centre Scott Gomez to the rival Rangers and top defenceman Brian Rafalski to Detroit.

"It is their right and I respect that," said Devils GM Lou Lamoriello. "It's unfortunate, but I don't begrudge them. I don't have any ill-feelings. I just wish them the best of luck because they've given us a lot of good years and we'd like to think we gave the same in return."

Lamoriello says his younger players will now get a bigger chance, citing blue-liners Paul Martin, Johnny Oduya and Andy Greene as examples.

"But you don't replace players like that," said Lamoriello. "We've been through this before, this is not something new. We have to develop our players and we have trust and respect in them that they can do it."

The Isles and Devils were hurting Tuesday but nowhere nearly as much as in Buffalo, where the departures of co-captains and top two centres Briere and Chris Drury (who went to the Rangers) was labelled in a local paper as "Black Sunday."

Team president Larry Quinn and GM Darcy Regier faced the music at a news conference Monday, and revealed that while they were never in the bidding for Briere, they were right there in the Drury sweepstakes.

"This is a situation where we were prepared financially to do Chris Drury," Quinn told reporters in Buffalo. "We made it eminently clear to his agent. . . . I know your emotion, I felt the same way. I have a lot of emotion. We wanted the player to return. We felt very strongly about it. We're not happy about it."

The Sabres will live on, Quinn said.

"I think the assumption that we're not going to have a good team is an incorrect one," he said. "I think we're going to have a very good team. We're going to work through these weeks in the summer to add to it. we're not done.

"So I'd say to (the fans), 'Have a little bit of faith.' Darcy didn't just fall off a turnip truck."

While Sabres fans were crushed, Flyers fans rejoiced. Hockey might be cool again in Philadelphia.

Consider what Flyers GM Paul Holmgren has now done in a matter of months. Briere joins a new cast that also includes winger Joffrey Lupul and defenceman Jason Smith (acquired Monday in a deal with Edmonton) as well as defenceman Kimmo Timonen and winger Scott Hartnell (acquired and signed from Nashville two weeks ago), goalie Martin Biron (February trade from Buffalo) and winger Scott Upshall (acquired from Nashville in February).

"Not only did Homer add some great talent but he's also brought in some really great leadership, guys that are respected around the league and in the locker-room," Biron told CP. "And I think that's the big key. You always worry about the chemistry of a team when you bring in a lot of new guys but I think you can see these guys know what it takes to be a team. And that's great."

Biron had his fingers crossed that he would be reunited with his good buddy Briere and was ecstatic when it materialized.

"I was pumped," said Biron. "I was talking to Denis Gauthier and Simon Gagne all afternoon. We were pretty nervous. We knew the Flyers would be a pretty big player and that Danny was interested was interested in coming to Philadelphia. . . .

"When the world came out, we were jumping up and down. It was very exciting."

And don't forget the Caps, who like the Flyers have nowhere to go but up. They did well in signing Poti and Kozlov on Sunday and capped it off Monday with perhaps the fourth-best centre available in all of free agency, Michael Nylander.

The 34-year-old is coming off a season in which he set career highs in goals (26), assists (57) and points (83) and will be a great fit with star winger Alexander Ovechkin.


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