Rangers sign free-agent centers Gomez and Drury
NEW YORK — The New York Rangers solved their problems at center in a big way Sunday, signing Scott Gomez and Chris Drury away from Eastern Conference rivals on the first day of free agency.
Just hours after the summer shopping season opened, the Rangers landed the two biggest available centers — plucking Gomez from Atlantic Division-foe New Jersey and Drury from the Buffalo Sabres, the team that knocked New York out in the second round of this year’s playoffs.
Gomez signed a seven-year deal with the Rangers worth $51.5 million — including $10 million next season. Drury inked a five-year contract for $35.25 million. He will earn $7.1 million each of the next two seasons.
“It’s pretty exciting,” Rangers general manager Glen Sather said. “We ranked them both as number ones, and we never expected to get both of them.”
The Rangers had been looking for a second-line center to play with forward Brendan Shanahan, and now can plug Gomez into that spot. Drury’s signing means that New York will let unrestricted free agent Michael Nylander leave, creating a spot on the top line for Drury to play alongside Jaromir Jagr.
Sather approached both players Sunday and felt during the day that he merely had to convince the pair to come to New York. He knew other teams were interested but didn’t get the impression from Drury and Gomez that he was bidding against other clubs.
New York already had some room under the salary cap, and then got more space when next season’s number was set at $50.3 million, an increase of $6.3 million from last season.
Shanahan hasn’t signed a new deal yet, but said after the season he wanted to return to New York. The Rangers also need to get restricted free agent goalie Henrik Lundqvist and forward Sean Avery under contract.
“We still have other people we have to sign so we have to be careful but we think we have things calculated out and we’re in a good position,” Sather said. “We think we can keep everyone we have right now.”
Although coach Tom Renney said he always has line combinations running through his head, he hasn’t mapped out exactly where everyone will line up on opening night.
“A couple of additions made it quite appealing,” Renney said.
Drury’s deal also includes a full no-move clause, meaning he can’t be traded without his consent or sent to the minor leagues. Agreeing to such terms is a shift in previous Rangers policy.
“I’d say it was not as intact as it was yesterday,” Sather said with a laugh. “When you make a deal, there are certain things you try to stick to and certain things you make compromises on.”
There was no immediate word whether Gomez received the same consideration. The 27-year Alaskan native, a two-time Stanley Cup champion in his seven NHL seasons — all with the Devils — had 13 goals and 47 assists in 72 games last season.
Drury, from nearby Trumbull, Conn., joined fellow Sabres co-captain Daniel Briere in leaving Buffalo on Sunday. Briere signed an eight-year, $52 million contract with Philadelphia — another division rival of the Rangers.
“I have some kind of mixed feeling,” Sather said of the Sabres. “I am happy we got an opportunity to get involved with these players. From Buffalo’s perspective, I’m sure they’re not happy these two guys left but that’s the nature of the beast.
“I know it was a difficult day for Darcy (Sabres GM Darcy Regier). You just have to face the facts that sometimes you can’t keep everyone, and at some point it’s probably going to happen to us. This organization has come a long way and this is our opportunity.”
Drury, 30, scored a career-high 69 points — including 37 goals — for the Sabres. Buffalo had an NHL-best 113 points this season, but the balance of power in the East clearly shifted toward the Atlantic Division on Sunday.
“He’s been a winner everywhere he’s been,” Sather said. “He brings that spunk we need. He fits many roles for us.”
The Rangers lost a tight, six-game series to Buffalo in the second round. New York was poised to take a 3-2 series lead in Game 5 when Drury scored the tying goal with 7.7 seconds left in regulation. The Sabres then won 2-1 in overtime to take control back in the series.
New York made the playoffs each of the past two years after missing for seven straight seasons.
“The expectations can’t be any greater than they are internally,” Renney said. “This is a work in progress and always will be. We just want to get to the highest level possible and work hard to sustain it.”
Sather said both players indicated a desire to play in New York, and signs throughout Sunday emerged that made him believe he could get them both under contract.
“I don’t think either one of them knew we were negotiating with the other guy,” he said. “We called them both at the same time and neither one knew about it until the very end.”