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Rangers, Flyers raid Sabres of co-captains in free agency

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The Buffalo Sabres' reign in the East might be over.

The New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers raided Buffalo of its two leaders on the first day of NHL free agency Sunday.

First, Sabres co-captain Daniel Briere signed a whopping eight-year, $52 million deal with the Flyers. Then, the Rangers piled on, signing the other co-captain, Chris Drury, to a five-year, $35.25 million contract.

Perhaps, it's no coincidence the Flyers and Rangers targeted Buffalo, a team that had reached and lost the Eastern Conference finals in each of the past two years. Also notable, the Rangers, this past spring, and Flyers, last year, had been eliminated by the Sabres in the playoffs.

New York made an additional splash when it signed New Jersey center Scott Gomez to a seven-year, $51.5 million contract.

And earlier, the Flyers had completed a four-player deal with Edmonton. Philadelphia acquired the Oilers captain, defenseman Jason Smith, and forward Joffrey Lupul in exchange for defenseman Joni Pitkanen and journeyman forward Geoff Sanderson.

Clearly, the balance of power has shifted away from the President's Trophy-winning Sabres, to their big-market rivals to the East.

Colorado made the biggest moves among Western Conference teams late in the day. The Avalanche signed New York Islanders forward Ryan Smyth -- the last of the top-echelon free agents left on the market -- to a five-year, $31.25 million deal, and San Jose defenseman Scott Hannan to a four-year, $18 million contract.

St. Louis made a move late in the evening, signing forward Paul Kariya to a three-year contract. A 12-year veteran, Kariya elected against returning to Nashville for a third season because of the franchise's instability during owner Craig Leipold's attempt to sell the team.

In other significant moves:

--Sharks forward Joe Thornton signed a three-year, $21.6 million contract extension that keeps him up with San Jose through 2011;

--the Anaheim Ducks found a potential replacement in the event captain Scott Niedermayer retires, signing defenseman Mathieu Schneider to a two-year, $11.25 million contract;

-- Detroit quickly made up for Schneider's loss by signing top-tier New Jersey defenseman Brian Rafalski to a five-year, $30 million contract;

-- Toronto signed winger Jason Blake to a five-year, $20 million contract. Blake's stock rose after he scored 40 goals and 69 points -- both career highs -- with the New York Islanders last season.

The top free agents all went on the first day, and to lucrative deals after the NHL announced its salary cap was increasing from $44 million last season to $50.3 million.

Briere and Gomez's contracts are structured so that both will be paid $10 million next season. Drury, meanwhile, will be making $7.1 million in each of the first two years of his deal.

Gomez is an offensively skilled player who finally gets to escape the defensive-minded Devils. His production was down last year -- managing 13 goals and 47 assists for 60 points -- after scoring 70 or more in each of his previous two seasons.

Drury is noted for his leadership and versatility, a talented scorer who also proved to be one of the Sabres' top penalty killers. He scored career highs with 37 goals and 69 points last season.

Briere was the top scorer available in free agency after finishing 10th in the NHL in scoring with 95 points (32 goals, 63 assists).

"Danny had many offers and lots of interest out there," Briere's agent, Pat Brisson, said in an e-mail to The Associated Press. "He is thrilled with the results."

The Sabres, who won a league-leading 105 games over the past two seasons, won't be bereft of talent, still having a star goalie in Ryan Miller and dynamic forwards Thomas Vanek and Maxim Afinogenov. But they'll have a difficult time making up for the loss Drury and Briere, both of whom played big roles in helping the franchise rebound after declaring bankruptcy in January 2003.

Thornton will make $7.2 million in each season of the new deal, earning a raise over the $6.67 million he's to make this coming season in the final year of his current contract.

Thornton leads NHL scorers over the past two seasons -- a span in which he's produced 51 goals and 188 assists for 239 points.

Thornton called the deal a no-brainer.

"There's no question I was going to re-sign there," Thornton said from his summer home in St. Thomas, Ontario. "It's just a perfect fit for me. The ownership wants a winner, and we've got a great young team there. I'm looking forward to being there for a long time."

Rafalski, a native of Dearborn, Mich., who spent his entire seven-year career with the Devils, turned down several more lucrative offers to play for his hometown team, his agent, William Zito said.

In Anaheim, Niedermayer's uncertain status forced the Ducks to go after Schneider.

"Scott Niedermayer has informed me that he is leaning toward retirement," Ducks general manager Brian Burke said. "Although he has not retired and would be welcomed back, we felt adding another top NHL defenseman was critical to defending our championship. Mathieu Schneider fits into that category and will be a great addition to our team."

Schneider will make $5.5 million this season and $5.75 million the next -- an expensive contract for an 18-year veteran who turned 38 last month. Even so, Schneider continues to be productive, having scored 50 or more points in four of his past six seasons, including 52 (11 goals, 41 assists) last year.

Dallas signed defenseman Sergei Zubov to a $5.35 million extension, adding a year to a contract that was set to expire after next season. He's played 11 of his 15 seasons with the Stars and is the only active defenseman with 40-plus points and 30-plus assists for 11 consecutive seasons.

"This is the place that my family and I love, and I want to finish my career here," Zubov said.

Smyth returns to the West after playing 11-plus seasons with Edmonton before being traded to the Islanders late last season. He enjoyed his fourth 30-goal season last season with 36 goals and 68 points.

Hannan is a dependable player, who tied a career-high with 24 points last season, while leading San Jose in averaging nearly 23 minutes of ice time.

"When we identified our needs on defense, we felt Scott was the best player on the market," Avalanche general manager Francois Giguere said. "At 28, we definitely feel he's entering the prime of his career."

Calgary bolstered its defense by signing Cory Sarich to five-year contract worth $18 million. An eight-year veteran, Sarich is a dependable blue-liner who spent the past four seasons with Tampa Bay. He had 15 assists in 82 games last year.

Pittsburgh secured one of its young core players, signing defenseman Ryan Whitney to a six-year contract worth $24 million. Whitney was a restricted free agent, who was open to offers from other teams, which the Penguins could match.

In other deals:

--The Florida Panthers signed three players: forward Radek Dvorak to a two-year deal; center Brett McLean to a three-year $5.1 million contract; and left wing Richard Zednik to a two-year $3.25 million contract.

--The Atlanta Thrashers signed former Minnesota center Todd White to a four-year $9.5 million contract. Atlanta also signed Tampa Bay center Eric Perrin to a two-year, $1.5 million deal, and re-signed forward Pascal Dupuis to a one-year deal.

--The Washington Capitals signed two former Islanders, forward Viktor Kozlov, to a two-year deal, and defenseman Tom Poti to a four-year $14 million deal. Kozlov had 51 points, including a career-high 25 goals last season.

--Minnesota traded goalie Manny Fernandez to Boston for prospect forward Petr Kalus and a midround draft pick. Fernandez had a 2.55 goals-against average and 91.1 save percentage in 44 games, but lost his starting job to Niklas Backstrom. For more sports coverage, visit http://www.nbcsports.com?aff=kndo