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Monday, August 1, 2005
Both players receive two-year deals

Associated Press

MIAMI -- Joe Nieuwendyk and Gary Roberts wanted the chance to finish their careers together. The Florida Panthers sought savvy veterans to mold their young talent into winners.

Gary Roberts

Joe Nieuwendyk

"It's a very attractive situation," Nieuwendyk said.

Indeed, for both sides. The Panthers made the first move in hockey's free agent signing period Monday, signing the four-time All-Star center Nieuwendyk and longtime left wing Roberts away from the Toronto Maple Leafs less than 90 minutes after the window for new moves opened.

Nieuwendyk, who's won the Stanley Cup with three franchises, and Roberts will both receive $4.5 million over the next two years from Florida, which hasn't won a playoff game since 1997.

"These two players are consummate professionals and will basically teach our younger players," Panthers general manager Mike Keenan said. "First of all, how to be a professional in many respects -- and how to win."

Roberts is 39, Nieuwendyk 38. They join a locker room in Florida stacked with potential, like goaltender Roberto Luongo, defenseman Jay Bouwmeester, and centers Stephen Weiss, Nathan Horton and Olli Jokinen, none of whom are older than 26.

"I just know we're ecstatic about the opportunity to come down with probably a younger group of guys than we had in Toronto and a great goaltender in Luongo," Roberts said. "We feel we can make an impact and make the Florida Panthers a better hockey team."

Each has a familiarity with new Panthers coach Jacques Martin, another plus supporting the move. In the NHL's new age that will seemingly lead to parity, the duo believes that Florida, which made the Stanley Cup finals in 1996, yet hasn't even reached the postseason since 2000, could improve greatly and quickly.

"I don't see any reason why they can't do what Tampa Bay did up the road, going to the finals and winning," Nieuwendyk said, referring to the Lightning's 2004 Stanley Cup title. "I don't think Gary and I are going there to be just part of a playoff team. We're going there to try to put a lot of wins on the board."

Nieuwendyk had 22 goals and 28 assists in 64 games with the Maple Leafs in 2003-04, but he missed parts of the year with back problems. Nieuwendyk, who won the 1999 Conn Smythe Award with the Dallas Stars and has 533 goals and 529 assists in 18 NHL seasons, signed a one-year, $3 million contract with Toronto last spring, before the season was lost in the lockout.

Roberts had 20 goals and 28 assists with the Maple Leafs in 2003-04 and was named to the Eastern Conference All-Star team that season. The 17-year NHL veteran played just 14 games the previous season after he missed the first 57 games recovering from offseason shoulder operations.

But Keenan said the durability of Nieuwendyk and Roberts isn't a major worry.

"We don't have that much of a concern or we wouldn't have hired them. ... They're both well-trained athletes. They're both respectful of how they look after themselves," Keenan said.

Nieuwendyk and Roberts have long been linked. They grew up playing together, first as opponents from the age of 5, then for many years on the same youth-level teams and even played lacrosse together as kids. Later, they spent nearly a decade playing together with the Calgary Flames, and have always been close.

They were offered to the Panthers as a package deal, and Keenan found it too intriguing to decline.

"We had to make a decision or lose them to competitors. ... The fact they could play together was more enticing than the financing," Keenan said.

Rick Curran, the agent for both players, said Toronto general manager John Ferguson did make an offer during the window where the Maple Leafs held exclusive negotiating rights. Curran said talks with the Leafs went on for a "week to 10 days, in attempting to see if we could come up with something."

Curran said Ferguson made a final offer Monday, and he offered it to Nieuwendyk and Roberts.

"We started our careers together and we wanted to finish our careers together," Roberts said. "And going to Florida gives us that opportunity." With hundreds of players on the market, the free agent signing period is expected to be wilder than ever. Many teams have fewer than 10 players under contract for the upcoming season.

Stars from forward Peter Forsberg to defensemen Scott Niedermayer and Brian Leetch are available, but they might not go to the highest bidder. Teams can only pay players up to 20 percent of the new $39 million salary cap.

"In the old days, it was they may not be willing to give it to you," Curran said. "Now they just can't."

The free agent season usually begins on July 1, but this first post-lockout summer made for a busy Monday. The activity should stretch through August and continue until training camps open next month.

"I think it was a little more active," New Jersey Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello said. "It's really tough to compare because July 1 was totally different than this because this had to do with free agents that came from the entry level players, non-drafted players and American League players.

"Everything came today, whereas it was spread out in the past and will be in the future."

Lamoriello said he had many conversations throughout the day, some he initiated and some that were spurred by calls to him. He declined to say whether he had talks with Niedermayer's camp about keeping him with the Devils.