NHL SPENDING LIKE DRUNKEN SAILORS, BUT WILL THE RANGERS?

bruce mug shot 1_thumbBY: Bruce Berlet

While awaiting free-agent center Brad Richards’ decision on which of a half-dozen suitors he was going to choose Friday, the New York Rangers signed two left wings with different styles.

First, unrestricted free-agent wing Mike Rupp inked a three-year, $4.5 million contract, and the Rangers later re-signed Ruslan Fedotenko for one year and $1.4 million, a $400,000 raise.

Richards, the cream of the free-agent crop that began with more than 50 signings at noon Friday, met with several teams in agent Pat Morris’ office in Mississauga, Ontario, before saying he would wait until at least Saturday to decide where he’s headed.

The Rangers were not among the visitors, but the New York Post’s Larry Brooks reported president and general manager Glen Sather will be given the right to match the best offer extended to the 31-year-old center who has been first on the team’s wish list for months. Brooks also tweeted that Rangers executive chairman James Dolan was in touch with Richards.

Another person who didn’t make it to suburban Toronto was former Hartford Whalers general manager Brian Burke, now GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs, who are in “a two-horse race” with the Rangers for Richards, according to the New York Daily News. Burke is in Afghanistan visiting Canadian military personnel and sent associates to deliver the Maple Leafs’ offer.

Others still in the Richards sweepstakes are the Los Angeles Kings, Tampa Bay Lightning, Calgary Flames and Philadelphia Flyers, who made the biggest signing of the day, inking former Rangers captain and future Hall of Famer Jaromir Jagr to a one-year, $3.3 million contract. The Flyers were helped when the Pittsburgh Penguins, who picked Jagr fifth in the 1990 draft, and the Detroit Red Wings pulled their one-year deals off the table.

Richards is said to receiving front-loaded offered that include close to maximum money of $12.86 million the first two seasons of long-term deals that include a signing bonus for next July 1 to protect against a rollback and/or a lockout starting with the 2012 season.

In more mundane matters, the Rangers added physicality by signing Rupp, 31, who had nine goals, eight assists, 124 penalty minutes and 181 hits, second among forwards, in 81 games with the Penguins last season. The Rangers needed some toughness after left wing Derek Boogaard was found dead by family members in his apartment in Minneapolis on May 13 from an accidental overdose of alcohol and oxycodone. He was 28.

“You want to go to a team that has shown that they want you,” Rupp said on a TSN interview. “I’ve played there many times on the road, and you get the opportunity as an opponent to go in there and try to tick off as many fans as you can. You like to do that because those fans are so good, so crazy. You’re on the flip side of that now, and I’m not sure if there’s a better place to be winning some hockey games than New York.”

Rupp got an immediate welcome from Rangers backup goalie Martin Biron.

“Welcome Mike Rupp of #NYR,” Biron wrote on Twitter. “I’ve seen a lot of him in front of my net the last few years. I’m really happy to have him on my side now.”

The 6-foot-5, 230-pound Rupp was the New York Islanders’ first-round pick (ninth overall) in 1998 but re-entered the draft two years later and was selected by the New Jersey Devils in the third round (76th overall). He played on the Stanley Cup champion Devils in 2003, notching one goal and two assists in a clinching 3-0 victory in Game 7 over the Anaheim Ducks. He has surpassed 100 hits in each of the last five seasons.

Rupp has 49 goals, 40 assist and 656 penalty minutes in 497 NHL games with the Devils, Penguins, Phoenix Coyotes and Columbus Blue Jackets. He notched his first NHL hat trick on Nov. 30, 2009 against the Rangers at Madison Square Garden. He has two goals and six assists in 43 playoff games with the Devils and Penguins.

Rupp won 82 of 162 faceoffs last season but plays mostly at wing, which didn’t seem to bode well for Fedotenko. But the veteran who made the Rangers off a training-camp tryout last year is returning after getting 10 goals and 15 assists in a first season in which the Blueshirts were 39-23-4 with him in the lineup.

Rupp is more of a bruiser, while Fedotenko is an agitator and penalty-killing specialist who played for coach John Tortorella when the Lightning won the Stanley Cup in 2004. Fedotenko also won a Stanley Cup with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2009.

The Rangers now have Rupp, Fedotenko, Sean Avery, Erik Christensen, Derek Stepan, Wojtek Wolski and free agents Brian Boyle and former Hartford Wolf Pack players Brandon Dubinsky and Artem Anisimov at left wing and center. If they sign their four free agents and Richards, they will have 10 players at those positions, not counting wing Mats Zuccarello, who split his rookie season in North America with the Rangers and Connecticut Whale. Tortorella doesn’t like having two extra forwards.

The Flames reportedly offered a nine-year, $64 million contract, but a New York Daily News source said, “He won’t go there.” The Daily News also reported the Rangers would like to add another left wing to skate alongside Richards and Marian Gaborik on the top line, which would suggest a forward will be traded.

Elsewhere “locally,” the first piece of the Boston Bruins’ championship team was lost through free agency. Right wing Michael Ryder, a hero on several occasions in the playoffs to erase a bad regular season (18 goals, 28 assists in 79 games), signed a two-year, $7 million deal with the Dallas Stars. He had left the Canadiens and signed a three-year, $12 million with the Bruins on July 1, 2008.

The Bruins did sign forward Benoit Pouliot (one year, $1.1 million) from the Canadiens and re-signed Providence Bruins center/captain Trent Whitfield and goalie Anton Khudobin, acquired from the Minnesota Wild for Jeff Penner and Mikko Lehtonen on Feb. 28, to two-year contracts.

The Devils re-signed standout defenseman Andy Greene (four years, $18 million) and goalie Johan Hedberg (one year, $1.1 million) to continue as the backup to future Hall of Famer Marty Brodeur.

The Islanders signed veteran center Marty Reason (two years, $7 million) and 2010 third-round pick Kiril Kabanov to a three-year, entry-level contract. Reasoner is coming off the best offensive season of his 12-year NHL career with 14 goals and 18 assists while playing all 82 games with Florida Panthers. He has 96 goals and 156 points in 706 NHL regular-season games with the Panthers, Blues, St. Louis Blues, Edmonton Oilers and Atlanta Thrashers, who are now the Winnipeg Jets.

Despite more than 50 signings for more $225 million in the first five hours of free agency, there are still a few big names left besides Richards. They include goalie Tomas Vokoun, forward Simon Gagne and defenseman Tomas Kaberle, who helped the Bruins win their first Stanley Cup in 49 years after being acquired at the trade deadline.

There was also a major trade, as the Washington Capitals sent goalie Semyon Varlamov to the Colorado Avalanche for a first-round pick in 2012 and a conditional second-round pick in 2012 or 2013. The Avalanche are working to sign Varlamov, who was is a restricted free agent, in order to stave off his reported temptation to return to Russia to play in the KHL.

The Rangers’ unrestricted free agents were defensemen Steve Eminger, Bryan McCabe, Matt Gilroy, Tysen Dowzak and Matt McCue and forwards Fedotenko, Alexander Frolov, Vinny Prospal, Todd White and the Whale’s Jeremy Williams, Devin DiDiomete and Justin Soryal. Frolov signed with Omsk, and Williams, who led the Whale in goals (32) and was second in points (55) and their only All-Star last season, has signed with EC Red Bull Salzburg of the Austrian Hockey League.

Former Rangers and/or Hartford Wolf Pack players available for the taking included goalies Ty Conklin and David LeNeveu, defensemen Paul Mara, Jason Strudwick, Andrew Hutchinson, Brian Fahey, Bryan Rodney, Dean Arsene and Marvin Degon and forwards Michael Nylander, Radek Dvorak, Fredrik Sjostrom, Aaron Voros, Alexandre Giroux, Chad Wiseman, Jed Ortmeyer, Hugh Jessiman, Greg Moore, Jeff Taffe, Jason Williams, Jason Krog, Steve MacIntyre, Patrick Rissmiller, Ryan Hollweg, Petr Prucha, Mitch Fritz, Colby Genoway, Francis Lessard and former Yale center Chris Higgins.

Higgins didn’t stay unemployed for long, as the Vancouver Canucks, who lost to the Bruins in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals, re-signed him to a two-year deal. He had a renaissance with the Canucks last season and was a key figure in the postseason. His signing followed in the footsteps of defensemen Kevin Bieksa on Thursday and Sami Salo on Friday. They later added speedy wing Marco Sturm, who has battled leg injuries the past two years, via a one-year, $2.25-million contract.

The Lightning signed goalie Mathieu Garon to a two-year deal as the backup to Dwayne Roloson, meaning Mike Smith was gone. In one year, Tampa Bay parted ways with both the goalies involved in their much-ballyhooed tandem last season: Dan Ellis, who was traded, and Smith. The Lightning later signed free agent right wings Michel Ouellet, who spent the last two seasons in Germany and Switzerland, and J.T. Wyman (one-year, two-way deal), who played last season with the AHL’s Hamilton Bulldogs.

New Florida Panthers coach Kevin Dineen, the former Whalers icon and captain, will have plenty of new faces to work with. It started with the signing of another veteran goalie, Jose Theodore (two years, $3 million), fueling speculation Vokoun was on his way out of South Florida, possibly to the Avalanche or Coyotes, who needed frontline goalies. But Smith signed with the Coyotes (two years, $4 million) as the Panthers were in the process of re-signing defenseman Ed Jovanoski (four years, $16.5 million) and adding feisty forward Scott Upshall (four years, $14 million), center Marcel Goc (three years, $5.9 million) and wings Thomas Fleischmann (four years, $18 million) and former Bridgeport Sound Tigers wing Sean Bergenheim (four years, $11 million). It was a big salary jump for Bergenheim, who signed with Tampa Bay last summer for $700,000 after spending his first five NHL seasons with the Islanders, who had taken him in the first round in 2002. Jovanovski, a five-time All-Star and Olympic gold medalist, returns to the team that made him the first overall selection in 1994. Fleischman has battled blood clots the past two years but has received a clean bill of health.

Meanwhile, Smith will replace Ilya Bryzgalov as the Coyotes’ No. 1 goalie and be reunited with former Whalers wing Dave Tippett (coach) and goalie Sean Burke (goaltending coach), who were together in Tampa. The Coyotes also re-signed forward Radim Vrbata (three years, $9 million) and added wing former Sound Tigers wing Raffi Torres (two years, $3.5 million) and faceoff specialist Boyd Gordon (two years, $2.65 million).

“Tip had (Smith) in Dallas, and we felt if he can become more consistent in his approach with Sean’s help we will really have a home run,” said Coyotes general manager Don Maloney, the former Rangers assistant GM and Wolf Pack GM. “We’re bringing him in with the idea of being the No. 1 guy but as a good 1-2 punch with (backup) Jason LaBarbera,” who played with the Wolf Pack and Rangers.

A week ago, Chicago Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman talked about how happy he was to get out of salary-cap agony when he traded defenseman Brian Campbell to the Panthers. Bowman immediately began to rebuild the team that former Whalers defenseman Joel Quenneville coached to a Stanley Cup in 2010 with the signing of veteran defenseman Sean O’Donnell and veteran forwards Jamal Mayers, Brett McLean and Andrew Brunette.

The wheeling and dealing continued full bore when the Avalanche tried to address their goaltending problems when they traded a first-round pick in 2012 and a second-round selection in 2012 or 2013 to the Capitals for the negotiating rights for 23-year-old restricted free agent Varlamov, who was said to be planning on playing in the KHL in his native Russia. The Russian news agency Sovetsky Sport reported Wednesday that Varlamov would sign with Yaroslavl Lokomotiv or SKA St. Petersburg, but he inked a two-year, $5.5-million contract with the Avalanche. The first-round pick in 2012 is the Avalanche’s selection. The second-round choice will be the Bruins’ 2012 pick, which Colorado previously acquired, or the Avalanche’s second-rounder in 2013.

Varlamov was a first-round pick in 2006 and competed with Michal Neuvirth, a second-round choice the same draft, for the No. 1 spot in Washington. The 23-year-old has played in 59 regular-season games and 19 postseason games after replacing Theodore during the 2009 and 2010 Stanley Cup playoffs but missed much of the 2010-11 season because of injury. With Theodore gone, Varlamov and Neuvirth vied for the starting job, and Neuvirth played every minute in this year’s playoffs.

The Avalanche had traded No. 1 goalie Craig Anderson to the Ottawa Senators on Feb. 18 and signed him to a four-year contract extension, and the Avalanche did not qualify restricted free agent Brian Elliott. They later turned some heads when they signed free-agent goalie and former Whalers first-round pick Jean-Sebastien Giguere. Most folks assume Giguere will be the backup after the bounty the Avalanche paid for Varlamov, but Giguere believes he’s still capable of being a starter. If he can overcome leg problems that he had last season, he could challenge Varlamov.

Meanwhile, Neuvirth is likely to be joined on the Capitals roster by the team’s third top young goalie prospect, 21-year-old Braden Holtby, unless Washington adds a veteran backup. It also helps Avon’s Jared DeMichiel, who signed with the Capitals out of Rochester Institute of Technology but is a free agent after playing last season with the AHL’s Hershey Bears and ECHL’s South Carolina Stingrays and Elmira Jackals.

Anderson quickly got a backup when well-traveled Alex Auld, a former caddie for the Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist, signed a one-year, $1-million contract with the Senators, who later re-signed Lessard (one-year, two-way contract). The Carolina Hurricanes signed another veteran goalie, Brian Boucher, as a backup to Cam Ward and added forward Alex Ponikarovsky on a one-year deal. The Canadiens got a backup for Carey Price in Peter Budaj, a starter for the Avalanche for parts of the past few seasons who was cut loose this summer as the team decided to go in a new direction.

The Canadiens also added speedy wing Erik Coles (four years, $18 million), and the Capitals signed wing Joel Ward (four years, $12 million), who increased his worth with a good playoff performance with Nashville, and defenseman Roman Hamrlik (two years, $7 million).

And the goalie carousel continued with Mark Dekanich (one-year, one-way deal) and Curtis Sanford (one-year, two-way deal) signing as possible backups in Columbus and Elliott joining the St. Louis Blues, who re-signed wing Matt D’Agostini (two years, $3.3 million). The Blue Jackets also signed centers Andrew Joudrey (two-year, two-way deal) and Nicholas Drazenovic (one-year, two-way deal).

The Red Wings signed defenseman Jonathan Ericsson to a three-year deal and added defenseman Mike Commodore, who was bought out by Columbus this week, for one year and $1 million in a classic no-risk, high-reward transaction. Sheldon Souray, exiled to Hershey last season because of his hefty salary, was bought out by the Edmonton Oilers earlier this year and signed a one-year deal with the Stars similar to the one signed by Commodore.

The Oilers added defenseman Cam Barker and rugged wings Darcy Hordichuk and Ben Eager (three years, $3 million) and traded defenseman Kurtis Foster to the Ducks for defenseman Andy Sutton. They also signed former Wolf Pack and Rangers defenseman Corey Potter to a one-year, two-way contract after he spent last season with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins.

A little more than an hour before the free-agent period opened, the Blue Jackets signed free-agent-to-be defenseman James Wisniewski to a six-year deal for $33 million. It has been a busy summer for the Blue Jackets, who traded for wing Jeff Carter from the Flyers eight days earlier. They were able to sign Wisniewski before the free-agent period started because they traded for his negotiating rights earlier this week.

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