Free agency heats up Atlantic Division rivalries

Dan Di Sciullo, NHL Editor

Dan Di Sciullo Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - The arms race that is NHL free agency began this week and the Philadelphia Flyers and New York Rangers added the most lethal weapons to their respective arsenals.

The Atlantic Division rivals made the biggest splashes on Sunday, as the Flyers and Rangers combined to sign possibly the three biggest names in this year's free agent market.

Philly began the proliferation by inking Daniel Briere on Sunday afternoon and the Blueshirts joined the fun that evening by signing Chris Drury and Scott Gomez. All three of those players are centermen and they will have plenty of chances to stare each other down in the faceoff circle next year, as the Flyers and Rangers are scheduled to meet eight times during the regular season.

And those new additions should form an every greater rivalry as the years roll on because all three players were signed to lengthy contracts. The Flyers signed Briere to an eight-year, $52 million deal, while New York gave Gomez $51.5 million over seven years and handed Drury a five-year, $35 million contract. The years on those deals will ensure that these players will get mighty familiar with each other in the ensuing seasons, although it could be a strange scenario at first for Briere and Drury, who served as co-captains of the Sabres last year and played together in Buffalo over the previous three NHL seasons.

Daniel Briere
Daniel Briere is going to be a huge piece in the Philadelphia puzzle.

By landing the duo of Drury and Gomez the Rangers appeared to be the biggest winners on Sunday, the first day of the NHL's free-agency period, but, for the Flyers, the signing of Briere was just the crown jewel in a busy year since Paul Holmgren took over as general manager back in October of last season.

In fact, just a few hours after getting Briere, the Flyers acquired veteran defenseman Jason Smith and winger Joffrey Lupul from Edmonton in exchange for young blueliner Joni Pitkanen and veteran winger Geoff Sanderson.

Both the Briere signing and the trade for Smith added a great deal of leadership, as both players served as captains for their teams last year. A few weeks back, the Flyers also acquired the rights to defenseman Kimmo Timonen and forward Scott Hartnell from Nashville and signed both players to multi-year deals. Timonen also happened to be captain of the Predators last season and gives the Flyers another leader, a type of player Philly sorely missed last year.

In addition to all of Holmgren's wheeling and dealing since the season ended it's easy to forget that the GM also landed a starting goaltender last year. The Flyers acquired Martin Biron from Buffalo before the trade deadline and then signed the netminder to a two-year deal at the end of March.

It's a good thing Holmgren has been this active in changing the face of this team because Philadelphia finished dead last in the NHL in 2006-07, marking the first time in club history that the Flyers were the worst team in the league.

The Rangers on the other hand had a solid 2006-07 campaign and they should be the team to beat in the Atlantic Division this year.

New York posted 94 points last year and made a playoff run before getting ousted by Buffalo in the Eastern Conference semifinals. The signing of Gomez cancels out the loss of centerman Michael Nylander, who departed as a free agent for Edmonton, and Drury gives the club a great all-around player who scored 37 goals last year. The Sunday signings have transformed the Blueshirts from playoff contenders to one of the elite teams in the Eastern Conference.

The other teams in the Atlantic Division have yet to dominate the headlines with marquee free-agent signings, although the Penguins, who posted 105 points last year, did make a minor splash by inking veterans Darryl Sydor and Petr Sykora. Not to mention, the club still has reigning Hart Trophy winner Sidney Crosby, one of a handful of talented and ever-improving youngsters the Penguins have at their disposal.

As for the New Jersey Devils and New York Islanders, they were both forced to watch as some of their key components were signed away. Gomez headed across the river from New Jersey to Broadway, and the Red Wings were able to lure Brian Rafalski, the Devils' top defenseman, to the Motor City. However, the death of the Devils has been announced prematurely in the past and the team will still enter the upcoming season as the two-time defending Atlantic Division champions regardless of the free-agent activity of their rivals.

Isles fans were also dealt a double-dose of frustration, as they watched a pair of key players from their playoff team of a year ago set sail. The Toronto Maple Leafs signed forward Jason Blake and Ryan Smyth opted to join the Colorado Avalanche. Blake led New York with 40 goals and 69 points last year, but was allowed to walk so the Islanders could concentrate on signing Smyth, who was acquired from Edmonton at the trade deadline last year. In the end, the Islanders lost out on both players and will also be without former captain Alexei Yashin, whose underachieving style of play prompted New York to buy out his contract. Yashin has yet to be signed by another team.

While extremely important these comings and goings will not necessarily determine the race for the division crown in 2007-08 because the impact of a factor known as chemistry cannot be determined until the season begins. Still, it's hard to imagine that the additions the Flyers and Rangers have made to their clubs will wind up making them worse.

Although it's way too early to start predicting champions in the Atlantic one thing is certain, the division has witnessed a large-scale talent influx this offseason that should add some much-needed juice to some of the NHL's best rivalries.

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Dan Di Sciullo