Free agency moves stun Penguins, Flyers fans

By Greg Trietley

As July 1 neared, the Pittsburgh Penguins had a destiny in free agency. The franchise had made… As July 1 neared, the Pittsburgh Penguins had a destiny in free agency. The franchise had made peace with gritty forward Max Talbot, who declined a three-year contract and opted to look for greener pastures. Only one big-name player stood out as a possible signing: Jaromir Jagr.

Penguins fans that had to work Friday wrote Facebook statuses asking for notification from friends when Jagr signed.

But Friday was far from a reunion.

Pittsburgh pulled its one-year, $2 million contract offer off the table when Jagr missed the team’s 11 a.m. deadline for a decision. Detroit, the other widely-reported suitor, backed out soon after. Then, like some last-minute movie twist, the rival Philadelphia Flyers declared at 1:30 p.m. they had landed the 600-goal scorer for $3.3 million.

“My friend, a Penguins fan, posted a fake tweet saying the Flyers signed him days before the actual announcement, but other than that I never even imagined the possibility,” Pitt student and Flyers fan Rob Vandegrift said Monday.

The Penguins had been courting the Czech native for a month. Jagr’s agent Petr Svoboda said on the eve of free agency that the former Penguin’s heart was in Pittsburgh.

It was two halves of an old relationship flirting, reminiscing about the good old days when Jagr routinely scored 100 points for the team — and not when he left the city for Washington under contentious circumstances.

That’s why he signing caught both Penguins and Flyers fans off-guard. Pittsburgh radio and social media lit up over the news. And an hour later, before the storm settled from the first announcement, Talbot joined Jagr as a Flyer.

“I had been at work all day and figured Pittsburgh had Jagr all but signed,” Vandegrift said. “Then I came home to realize [the Flyers] got him and Talbot.”

Pitt sophomore and Penguins fan Ryan Fitzmaurice shared Vandegrift’s surprise.

“I did think Jagr was going to end up in Pittsburgh,” Fitzmaurice said Sunday. “But when I heard they pulled the offer, I wasn’t expecting him at all to go to Philadelphia.”

Both moves drew shock and disbelief — words fast becoming Philadelphia trademarks because of the rapid-fire signing decisions of general manager Paul Holmgren.

The Flyers entered the offseason in desperate need of a goalie, so Holmgren acquired goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov from Phoenix and signed him to a nine-year, $51 million contract. Problem solved.

But that pushed Philadelphia over the salary cap, triggering a series of radical moves that started with the departure of Jeff Carter and captain Mike Richards and concluded, at least for now, with the addition of Jagr and Talbot.

Talbot agreed to a five-year, $9 million deal, although the two sides might have to revise the details of the contract because it bends the NHL’s cap circumvention rules, The Sports Network reported Sunday.

Regardless of the minutiae of the contract, the now ex-Penguin will play next season for the team he scored his first career goal against and with whom he fought twice. For Penguins and Flyers fans, a fan favorite is now a rival, and vice versa — which will take some getting used to.“I’m not so happy with the Talbot signing,” Pitt junior and Flyers fan Joe Levinthal said Sunday. “Aside from everything that has happened between him and the Flyers, I don’t like the idea of giving a five-year, $9 million deal to a player who scored 21 points last season.”

In Pittsburgh, some owners of Talbot shirts and jerseys will look for a new wardrobe.

“I am definitely going to boo Jagr and Talbot for trading teams like the way they did,” Fitzmaurice said. “I would be shocked if I saw any Talbot and Jagr Flyers jerseys because I don’t think the Flyers fans will accept Talbot. Maybe Jagr, but they shouldn’t expect much from him.”

Others see the business side of it.

“When the Flyers come to Pittsburgh, I will probably boo Jagr, but not Talbot,” Pitt senior and Penguins fan Natalie Lipko said Monday. “I think it killed Talbot to leave the Pens, but he almost had no choice because the Flyers were offering him almost double what the Pens were. You can’t really blame him for taking their offer.”

When all was said and done on Friday, the Penguins wound up with long-time Predator winger Steve Sullivan, who has two 30-goal seasons so far but has battled injuries since the 2004-05 lockout. Sullivan signed a one-year deal worth $1.5 million.

Meanwhile, the trigger-happy additions and subtractions made by Holmgren lie somewhere between brilliance and absurdity, depending on who you ask.

“Holmgren is an idiot,” Fitzmaurice said. “He traded his top two players [Carter and Richards] because they weren’t good in the locker room and then brings in Jagr, who is only going to disrupt the locker room.”

Jagr scored 50 points in 49 games last season with the Avangard Omsk of the Kontinental Hockey League, Russia’s premier league. He last played in the NHL three years ago, making 25 goals and 46 assists in 82 games with the Rangers.

Faced with so many roster moves, Flyers fans have a wait-and-see approach.

“[Holmgren] has made some really smart moves that have made the team better,” Levinthal said. “While this is definitely the boldest thing that he’s done, I think there is a lot more going on behind the scenes than we realize that served as the reasoning behind these deals.”

The current Flyers roster features new right-wingers on the top three lines: former Blue Jacket Jakub Voracek, former King Wayne Simmonds and Jagr, who said he declined more lucrative offers in order to join Philadelphia.

Jagr has made more than $108 million playing professional hockey since debuting with Pittsburgh in 1990.