Rangers make big splash in first day of free agency



By John Wawrow

How badly did the Buffalo Sabres get trampled in the NHL’s free-agent stampede?

Enough for New York Rangers general manager Glen Sather to almost feel sorry for his Eastern Conference rival.

“I have some kind of mixed feeling,” Sather said Sunday. “I’m happy we got an opportunity to get these players. From Buffalo’s perspective, I’m sure they’re not happy these two guys left. But that’s the nature of the beast.”

The Rangers made the biggest splash on a frenzied first day of free agency, signing two of the five top-echelon players available. Shortly after signing New Jersey forward Scott Gomez to a seven-year, $51.5 million contract, New York landed Sabres co-captain Chris Drury with a five-year, $35.25 million deal.

If that wasn’t enough, the Philadelphia Flyers signed Buffalo’s other co-captain, Daniel Briere, to a whopping eight-year, $52 million deal.

Briere immediately becomes the fresh face of a retooled Flyers team that also completed a four-player trade with Edmonton. Philadelphia acquired the Oilers captain, defenseman Jason Smith, and forward Joffrey Lupul in exchange for defenseman Joni Pitkanen and journeyman forward Geoff Sanderson.

In what will go down as “Black Sunday” in Buffalo, the Sabres’ two-year reign as the East’s most competitive team approached an end with the balance of power clearly shifting to the conference’s traditional big-market franchises.

“I know it was a difficult day for Darcy,” Sather said, referring to Sabres GM Darcy Regier. “You just have to face facts that sometimes you can’t keep everyone.”

Colorado made the biggest moves among Western Conference teams. The Avalanche signed Islanders forward Ryan Smyth to a five-year, $31.25 million deal, and San Jose defenseman Scott Hannan to a four-year, $18 million contract.

The Sabres weren’t the only losers in free agency. Joining them were the New York Islanders, whose roster was also poached.

Besides Smyth and Blake, the Isles lost two players to Washington when the Capitals signed defenseman Tom Poti to a four-year $14 million deal, and forward Viktor Kozlov.

Unable to retain Smyth was the biggest blow to Islanders GM Garth Snow, who acquired the forward from Edmonton at the trade deadline in February.

“It was obviously not what we wanted to hear, but I appreciated the call,” Snow said, after learning the news of Smyth’s departure.