Rangers, Flyers raid Sabres of co-captains

Chris Drury signed with New York while Daniel Briere inked with Philadelphia.


The Sabres’ reign in the East might be over.

The New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers raided Buffalo of its two leaders on the first day of NHL free agency Sunday.

First, Sabres co-captain Daniel Briere signed a whopping eight-year, $52 million deal with the Flyers. Then, the Rangers piled on, signing the other co-captain, Chris Drury, to a five-year, $35.25 million contract.

Perhaps, it’s no coincidence the Flyers and Rangers targeted Buffalo, a team that had reached and lost the Eastern Conference finals in each of the past two years. Also notable, the Rangers, this past spring, and Flyers, last year, had been eliminated by the Sabres in the playoffs.

New York made an additional splash when it signed New Jersey center Scott Gomez to a seven-year, $51.5 million contract.

And earlier the Flyers had completed a four-player deal 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.

Clearly, the balance of power has shifted away from the President’s Trophy-winning Sabres, to their big-market rivals to the East.


In other significant deals:

USharks forward Joe Thornton signed a three-year, $21.6 million contract extension that keeps him up with San Jose through 2011.

UThe Anaheim Ducks found a potential replacement in the event captain Scott Niedermayer retires, signing defenseman Mathieu Schneider to a two-year, $11.25 million contract.

UDetroit quickly made up for Schneider’s loss by signing top-tier New Jersey defenseman Brian Rafalski to a five-year, $30 million contract.

UToronto signed winger Jason Blake to a five-year, $20 million contract. Blake’s stock rose after he scored 40 goals and 69 points — both career highs — with the New York Islanders last season.

UAnd Colorado signed San Jose defenseman Scott Hannan to a reported four-year deal, worth $18 million.

Of the top echelon players hitting the market, only Islanders forward Ryan Smyth remained unsigned.

Briere, Gomez and Drury were considered part of that top group, and were paid that way. Briere and Gomez’s contracts are structured so that both will be paid $10 million next season. Drury, meanwhile, will be making $7.1 million in each of the first two years of his deal.

Gomez is an offensively skilled player who finally gets to escape the defensive-minded Devils. His production was down last year — managing 13 goals and 47 assists for 60 points — after scoring 70 or more in each of his previous two seasons.

Drury is noted for his leadership and versatility, a talented scorer who also proved to be one of the Sabres’ top penalty killers. He scored career highs with 37 goals and 69 points last season.

Briere was the top scorer available in free agency after finishing 10th in the NHL in scoring with 95 points (32 goals, 63 assists).

“Danny had many offers and lots of interest out there,” Briere’s agent, Pat Brisson, said in an e-mail to The Associated Press. “He is thrilled with the results.”

Talent remaining

The Sabres, who won a league-leading 105 games over the past two seasons, won’t be bereft of talent, still having a star goalie in Ryan Miller and dynamic forwards Thomas Vanek and Maxim Afinogenov. But they’ll have a difficult time making up for the loss Drury and Briere, both of whom played big roles in helping the franchise rebound after declaring bankruptcy in January 2003.

Thornton will make $7.2 million in each season of the new deal, earning a raise over the $6.67 million he’s to make this coming season in the final year of his current contract.

Thornton leads NHL scorers over the past two seasons — a span in which he’s produced 51 goals and 188 assists for 239 points.

Thornton called the deal a no-brainer.

“There’s no question I was going to re-sign there,” Thornton said from his summer home in St. Thomas, Ontario. “It’s just a perfect fit for me. The ownership wants a winner, and we’ve got a great young team there. I’m looking forward to being there for a long time.”

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