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Slim pickings as Jagr leaves NHL

Russia's Continental Hockey League appears to have landed its first superstar. And all it cost them was $17.5 million a season.

The website of Avangard Omsk reported Friday morning that the team had signed former Ranger Jaromir Jagr to a two-year deal with an option for a third. TSN reported the value of the deal at $35 million, though neither Omsk nor Jagr's agent had confirmed the terms as of this writing. Omsk is the same team with which Jagr played during the lockout season, and he'll join a lineup that also features Rangers prospect Alexei Cherepanov.

Said to be entertaining offers from the Russian league for the past several weeks, Jagr had his hand forced when the Rangers tired of his dallying and signed former Canucks captain Markus Naslund on Thursday for two years at $8 million, soaking up whatever salary cap space might have been held for him.

Jagr departs as the ninth-leading scorer in NHL history (1,599 points), and someone who had a legitimate chance to move into the top five before he was done, even with his skills in decline. But he's also a player who failed to find consistency or real chemistry with his Rangers linemates last season, and his desire to compete was in question far too often for someone looking for something in the neighborhood of $7 million to stay in New York. The team's decision to spend that money on Naslund and Wade Redden instead certainly is open to criticism, but the choice to move past the Jagr era in New York shouldn't be.

Less than 96 hours into the process, the free agency pool nearly was drained of its marquee talent. Here's a quick look at who's left to fill in the gaps as of July 8:

Mats Sundin: Will he retire, or won't he? Will he play in North America or go quietly into that good night in Sweden? At this point, anything's possible. Vancouver's two-year, $20 million offer has to be tempting, but the departure of Naslund to the Rangers might make the Canucks a less appealing option...and that may return Montreal to front-runner status. Of course, Sundin is used to playing for teams with few playoff aspirations...

Sergei Fedorov: Both the Devils and Capitals are in the running for the services of the 38-year-old vet, but neither appear all that eager to pony up the $4 million he's said to be asking. Just a guess, but look for him to return to Washington rather than take what could be a more lucrative offer from Russia's Continental Hockey League.

Brendan Shanahan: Odds are he'll return to the Rangers, but the Devils also are in the running. Don't rule out the appeal of finishing his career where he started back in 1987...or the chance to play a larger role than he might in New York next season.

Pavol Demitra: After a miserable season in Minnesota, the veteran forward is said to be dancing with Vancouver, where his former agent, Mike Gillis, serves as general manager. That may be his only NHL option. With his skills in decline, and rumors of his being something less than a calming presence in the dressing room, Demitra's days in the league may be over.

Teemu Selanne: No doubt the Habs would love his speed and Finnish finish on a line with Saku Koivu, but Selanne's camp is giving no indication of his intentions for the upcoming season. Retirement seems like a 50/50 proposition at this point.

If the Canucks strike out in the Sundin sweepstakes, look for Gillis to take another swipe at adding to his roster through a restricted free agent offer sheet.

It certainly wouldn't be a popular move -- Gillis was lambasted after going that route with St. Louis forward David Backes on Tuesday -- but he has little alternative if he hopes to improve a team that looks considerably weaker than last season's underachieving group.

Until Sunday, Gillis' best bet was Detroit winger Valterri Filppula. The Red Wings tend not to lose players they want to keep -- and Filppula definitely fits that category. He's opted for arbitration.

A reminder to the NHL's schedule makers: Enjoy your long holiday weekend, but please be sure to report back to the office on Monday. Despite what you may be hearing, plans are still in place to play the 2008-09 season.

There certainly are some hands being thrown in the air in the wake of Detroit's surprising signing of premier free agent forward Marian Hossa on Wednesday. The addition of the highly-skilled 29-year-old winger to the roster of the defending Stanley Cup champs appears to firm them up as the prohibitive preseason favorites to repeat next spring.

But it's premature to start planning the parade route. Too soon to start clearing space in the trophy cabinet. And far too hasty to start measuring ring sizes.

The Red Wings, to the amazement of some and frustration of others, look even more like someone's fantasy hockey roster than when last we saw them crushing the Pittsburgh Penguins in six games. But they haven't won the 2009 Cup yet. In fact, the odds -- and history -- suggest they won't.

It's not just that hockey hasn't had a successful title defense since the Wings turned the trick a decade ago. It's that the game is littered with the flaming remains of preseason locks who crashed along the way.

Consider the 1970-71 Bruins. Boasting a lineup that included Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito and Gerry Cheevers, they were expected to repeat as Cup champs before their dreams were derailed in the first round by the Montreal Canadiens and rookie goalie Ken Dryden.

Or how about the 1985-86 Oilers, whose chance at a three-peat and five-year Cup run was undone by, among other things, a Steve Smith own goal?

Fortunately for some of us, It doesn't take that long a memory to recall a similar scene of free agency-induced white flag waving by fans. It was the summer of 2003, on the heels of a 105-point season, that the Colorado Avalanche managed to wrangle both Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne to join a star-studded lineup that already included Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, Milan Hejduk, Adam Foote and Rob Blake.

Both Kariya and Selanne took one-year contracts structured significantly under market value -- and this was pre-cap, remember -- with an eye on postseason success. "This organization has a history of winning the Stanley Cup," Selanne said at the time.

Of course, things didn't work out so well.

Both Forsberg and Kariya spent extended stretches on the shelf, and Selanne disappointed with a 16-goal, 32-point season. Their struggles weren't the only problem. That Avalanche team also had issues in net, where the retirement of Patrick Roy left the promising but unproven (and ultimately unprepared) David Aebischer to hold the fort.

Those stacked Avs fell in the second round of the playoffs.

A more recent, albeit non-hockey, parallel might be drawn to the 2007 New England Patriots, a perennial championship contender that added Randy Moss to an already deep roster. Bolstered by the receiver's NFL record 23 touchdown catches, the Pats went 16-0 in the regular season and won two more playoff games. But they failed to seal the deal in the Super Bowl, blowing a lead and losing 17-14 to the gritty New York Giants in the final minute.

While that should provide some heart to fans ready to write this season off, it's not to take anything away from Red Wings GM Ken Holland, who is certainly making the most of his summer. One day after adding Ty Conklin, the most appealing backup goalie on the market, and re-signing playoff stalwart Brad Stuart -- both at 75 cents on the dollar -- Holland came to terms with Hossa on a stunning one-year deal constructed specifically with the Cup in mind.

It was a dazzling bid by Holland, one that certainly left more ardent suitors like Edmonton (rumored to have offered nine years at $81 million) and Montreal wondering what they had to do to be taken seriously. Despite having scads of cap room, Holland was hamstrung when it came to making a similar long-term deal by the need to lock in core players Henrik Zetterberg and Johan Franzen before they hit unrestricted free agency next summer. The sides may extend their agreements eventually, but there's no commitment. So Holland essentially added a rental player for the entire 2008-09 season, and he did it without having to give up any assets.

It also was bold move by Hossa, who left a lifetime of security on the table to take what he saw as his best shot at the dream. It's surprising that he's being painted by some as a mercenary -- or more inappropriately, a bad teammate in Pittsburgh -- for chasing a Cup with the Wings when most anyone else would have leapt at the biggest pile of money.

Hossa's willingness to put team success over financial self-interest provides an emotional focus for a team that already is one of the most disciplined in hockey. And that may be just as key to Detroit's fate as the 35 goals he's averaged over the past eight seasons.

Sure, with Hossa in the lineup, it'd be crazy to bet against the Wings. But as those Boston, Edmonton and New England teams prove, there's a reason they actually play the games instead of simply awarding the hardware to the most impressive paper lineup.

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