FROM THE CREASE with BRUCE BERLET

bruce mug shot 1BY: Bruce Berlet

Within weeks of trading captain Mike Richards and fellow high scorer Jeff Carter on the same day, the Philadelphia Flyers won the Jaromir Jagr sweepstakes Friday after the Pittsburgh Penguins and Detroit Red Wings bowed out.

Jagr signed a one-year, $3.3-million contract after spending the past three seasons with Omsk of the Kontinental Hockey League in Russia. That came after Jagr played three seasons with the New York Rangers, where he became the team’s 24th captain and set franchise records for goals (54) and points (123) in his first season, 2005-06.

“There’s a reason why there was so much interest and hype about him in the free agent market because he’s a good player,” said feisty wing Max Talbot, who left the Penguins to sign a five-year, $19-million contract with the Flyers. “He showed the world at the World Championship that he can definitely play. I remember playing against him and he was one of the guys that was always toughest to play against. He was so big and controlled the puck in the corner and made the right play. Just a great signing for the Flyers.”

The 39-year-old Jagr is again ready for NHL duty after being one of the best forwards in the World Championships in May while playing for the Czech Republic. He should be an especially big draw on divisional road trips to play the Rangers and Penguins, who made Jagr the fifth overall pick in 1990 and helped lead them to Stanley Cups in his first two seasons.

Jagr will be counted on to fill the void for the losses of Richards, a wing dealt to the Los Angeles Kings on June 23 for blue-chip forward Brayden Schenn, power forward Wayne Simmonds and a second-round pick in 2012, and Carter, a center dealt to the Columbus Blue Jackets for forward Jakub Voracek and first- and third-round picks in last Saturday’s draft just minutes after Richards was sent packing. Richards and Carter were traded to open salary-cap space after acquiring the negotiating right to Phoenix Coyotes goalie Ilya Bryzgalov, who is seeking a large contract despite some struggles in the playoffs.

After Jagr signed, there were various reports the Penguins were livid about the circus the signing became with his agent, former NHL defenseman Petr Svoboda, involved with other teams. About a half-hour before free-agent signing started at noon, the Penguins announced they had withdrawn their offer for Jagr, who had met with Penguins owner and former teammate Mario Lemieux last week.

“We made what we thought was a very fair contract offer to Jaromir on Tuesday, based on his stated interest of returning to the Penguins,” general manager Ray Shero said in a statement. “We made our best offer from the start, given our salary cap structure, in an attempt to facilitate the deal. But now, after several days, with an extended time frame for making a decision, and additional teams getting involved, we have decided to move in a different direction.

“It was never our intention to get involved in a free-agent bidding war, and we have to focus on our team. Jaromir is one of the greatest players in Penguins history and we wish him all the best.”

About a half-hour later, the Red Wings also dropped out of the running, leaving Philadelphia and the Montreal Canadiens as the frontrunners for Jagr, who is ninth all-time in NHL scoring with 1,599 points, only 42 behind Joe Sakic. He has played in 1,273 NHL games over 17 seasons, including the first 11 in Pittsburgh, where he won the Stanley Cup twice, the Hart Trophy, the Art Ross Trophy five times and the Lester B. Pearson Award four times.

Jagr also was a finalist for the Hart Trophy five times, including in 2006 with the Rangers. The last time Jagr played in North America was at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, where he was the flag bearer for the Czech Republic. He won gold at the 1998 Olympics and bronze at the 2006 Games.

The Flyers later angered the Penguins and their fans even more when they signed the versatile Talbot and then added defenseman Andreas Lilja (three years, $5.1 million). The Penguins countered by signing wing Steve Sullivan (one year, $1.5 million) and re-signing forward Tyler Kennedy (two years, $4 million).

The Flyers then traded wing Kris Versteeg to the Florida Panthers for a second- and third-round pick. Versteeg rejoins his former general manager, Dale Tallon in Florida as he tries to recapture the magic he showed in 2009-10. The Flyers also lost forward Ville Leino, who signed a six-year, $27-million contract with the Buffalo Sabres. Leino became unsignable after the Flyers’ earlier moves filled most of their $64.3 million salary cap.

With Richards gone, former Hartford Whalers defenseman and first-round pick Chris Pronger is expected to be named the Flyers’ new captain.

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