Demitra signing can't keep Palffy in L.A.

PITTSBURGH -- Ziggy Palffy left the Los Angeles Kings to become the second marquee free agent in a week to join the previously cash-strapped Pittsburgh Penguins, agreeing Saturday to a $13.5 million, three-year contract with the NHL's worst team in 2003-04.

Palffy, long one of the NHL's top scorers, agreed to the deal while in his native Slovakia. He joins a fast-growing stable of Penguins offensive talent that includes Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux, Mark Recchi, free-agent defenseman Sergei Gonchar and No. 1 draft pick Sidney Crosby.

In leaving the Kings, Palffy -- who has scored 37 or more goals five times -- turned down the chance to play with friend Pavol Demitra, another Slovakian star who signed an identical $13.5 million, three-year contract last week with Los Angeles.

Demitra hoped that signing with the Kings would entice Palffy to stay. But Palffy couldn't turn down the chance to play for what long was the NHL's most wide-open offense in Pittsburgh -- and, with the new rules designed to encourage scoring, one that plans to be so again.

The 5-foot-10, 182-pound Palffy, 33, was targeted by the Penguins from the start of free agency because his style and scoring skill fit in perfectly with the up-tempo game Lemieux prefers to play. Palffy has seven seasons of 30 or more goals, though he was limited to 41 points in 35 games in 2003-04 with the Kings because of a shoulder injury.

Palffy to the Penguins also signals how the league's new collective bargaining agreement and salary cap have quickly allowed small-market or lower-payroll teams to compete with the big names for talent.

Since the free-agent signing period began Monday, players such as Chris Pronger (Edmonton), Paul Kariya (Nashville) and Gonchar have gone to smaller-market clubs -- and Norris Trophy defenseman Scott Niedermayer signed with low-payroll Anaheim. Also, the previously low-spending Blackhawks paid out $6.5 million a year for premier goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin of Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay.

The Penguins, for example, had the NHL's worst record and lowest attendance in 2003-04 but now expect to compete immediately in the Atlantic Division while raising their payroll from the league's lowest to the middle. The buildup of talent follows three years of tearing apart for financial reasons a lineup that once included Jaromir Jagr, Ron Francis, Robert Lang, Martin Straka and Alexei Kovalev.

The Penguins agreed to the Palffy deal just a day after Lemieux announced that he and primary partner Ron Burkle would retain majority ownership in the team, after previously planning to sell to San Jose-based businessman William "Boots" Del Biaggio III.

Del Biaggio instead will buy a minority stake.