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Wednesday, July 4, 2007

The first few days of NHL free agency were infinitely more entertaining than the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Three observations:

• The Penguins did just fine.

• The New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers have gotten better -- in the Flyers' case, much better -- and that's good for the Penguins and for the league.

• The Flyers and Rangers overspent and could face salary cap ramifications down the road.

First, the Penguins.

They needed a scoring winger and a defenseman. Paul Kariya and Scott Hannan would have been nice, but those two went for the ludicrous cost of $36 million over seven years.

Average combined salary -- $10.5 million.

Penguins general manager Ray Shero opted for sanity and still made some major upgrades. Petr Sykora and Darryl Sydor will make a total of $10 million over four years.

Average combined salary -- $5 million.

Think about it like this: Sykora replaced Michel Ouellet, and Sydor replaced Josef Melichar.

What's not to like about that?

Kariya only had two more goals than the 30-year-old Sykora last season and is two years older.

Sydor, 35, has won multiple Cups. He's lost a step, but he'll move the puck quickly and accurately.

Meanwhile, Shero signed potential No. 1 defenseman Ryan Whitney at the bargain rate of $24 million over six years and might have Crosby locked up long-term before the summer's out.

If that happens, the summer must be considered a smashing success.

Elsewhere in the suddenly rollicking Atlantic Division, the Flyers and Rangers are back to their free-spending ways.

Philly's been rebuilding since the end of its hideous regular season. Defensemen Kimmo Timonen and Jason Smith, forwards Scott Hartnell and Daniel Briere and goaltender Martin Biron, among others, have stepped aboard.

Three of those guys -- Timonen, Smith and Briere -- were captains on their former teams.

The Penguins will not go 8-0 against the Flyers again this season, but really, what fun was that•

A healthy, heated competition should make it more enjoyable for fans in both cities. It also gives the NHL a front-line rivalry and the Penguins a team to measure themselves against.

That said, the Flyers might come to regret signing Timonen and Hartnell to deals worth a combined 12 years and $63 million. And that was nothing compared to Briere, whose free-agent deal is worth $52 million over eight years.

Briere, who turns 30 in October, had a breakout season with 95 points, but there's no telling what might happen to his numbers now that he's been extricated from Buffalo's breakneck system.

Drury and Gomez also are candidates for the All-Overpaid Team.

Drury, 30, has never scored 70 points in a season. He signed with the Rangers for five years and $35.25 million.

Gomez has scored more than 70 points only once in his seven-year career. Yet the Rangers saw fit to lavish him with a seven-year, $51.5 million deal.

Even if they overspent, the Flyers and Rangers should be contenders.

For a league whose past three finals have pitted Tampa Bay-Calgary, Carolina-Edmonton and Anaheim-Ottawa, that can only be considered good news.

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