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Past Free Agent Moves

by Michelle Crechiolo / Pittsburgh Penguins
Once 12:00 p.m. ET hits on July 1, an unrestricted free agent is free to negotiate and sign a contract with any team. Prior to signing defensemen Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek on that date last summer – which could go down in history as the franchise’s biggest free agent acquisitions ever – the Penguins have acquired a number of other valuable players during free agency over the years who have played significant roles in the team's success. With July 1 fast approaching, reflects back on some of the team's notable free-agent signings following the lockout.

NAME: Sergei Gonchar
SIGNED: August 3, 2005
NOTES: The Penguins made a huge splash the summer following the lockout when they signed Russian defenseman Sergei Gonchar to a five-year, $25 million contract. Gonchar, one of the best talents available on the open market, had been the NHL’s top goal-scoring defenseman for the past six seasons when then-Penguins general manager Craig Patrick inked him to the contract. The deal turned out to pay dividends, as the offensively gifted blueliner went on to win a Stanley Cup with the Penguins in 2009. Gonchar, a power-play specialist known for his passing skills and hard shot, compiled 250 points in 322 games in a black-and-gold sweater, with 37 of his 54 goals and 138 of his 196 assists coming on the power play. During his time in Pittsburgh, Gonchar anchored the top defensive pairing alongside Brooks Orpik.

NAME: Jarkko Ruutu
SIGNED: July 1, 2006
NOTES: Jarkko Ruutu was one of the first free agents Ray Shero targeted after becoming Penguins general manager on May 25, 2006, and that’s because the Finnish forward is the perfect example of a player you want on your team, but don’t want to play against. On the ice, Ruutu had carved a niche for himself in the league as an agitator – a strong, physical grinder who got under the opposing team’s skin and played in those players’ faces. In each of his two seasons with the Penguins, Ruutu finished third on the team in hits. In Pittsburgh’s run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2008, Ruutu registered 50 hits in 20 games. While the strengths in Ruutu’s game didn’t lay in his offensive abilities, the forward thrived in one-on-one situations with opposing goalies. He scored on four of his eight shootout attempts with the Penguins and even converted a penalty shot. And while Ruutu may have been a pest on the ice, he was a beloved teammate off of it, as he built a reputation as being a jokester in the locker room.

Shero on Ruutu: “I still remember – I still have the email, too – from Jarkko Ruutu, because I remember on July 1st, one of the first guys I talked to was Jarkko Ruutu, trying to get him to come to Pittsburgh as a free agent. I really liked the way he played and I liked the character he had. He was the type of guy I wanted to try, character-wise, to add to the group as a start. He had a number of other offers, and I still remember having him decide after three or four days, that he was going to come. He liked what we had to say. He had a three-year offer somewhere else, but he said he would like to come here for two years. … To me, that was a step in the right direction getting a guy like Ruutu with the way he played the game.”

NAME: Mark Eaton
SIGNED: July 3, 2006
NOTES: Defenseman Mark Eaton was another memorable signing for Ray Shero in his first summer as Penguins general manager. Eaton was another player Shero set in his sights, as he had worked with the steady blueliner for about six years in Nashville as assistant general manager and knew what he could bring to the table. Although Eaton saw his first two campaigns with the Penguins shortened by knee and wrist afflictions – playing a combined 71 games from 2006-08 – the Delaware native overcame the adversity caused by his injuries to help the Penguins win the Stanley Cup in 2009, paired alongside Kris Letang. During his time in Pittsburgh, Eaton was a reliable, stay-at-home defenseman who was smart in his own zone – never afraid to sacrifice his body to block a shot – and a consummate teammate. For his commitment to the game, Eaton was named the team’s Bill Masterton Trophy nominee that season – given annually to the NHL player that “best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey.”

Shero on Eaton: “I had worked with Mark in Nashville and knew him in terms of what he brought. To get to the Finals with Ruutu and win a Stanley Cup with Eaton, really, they were the first two guys that we had that could have gone elsewhere but they had bought into what we were selling. We weren’t selling much. We didn't have a building, we weren’t a playoff team, we weren’t a cap team, I was a brand-new GM. So that, to me, was just kind of getting the thing going in the right direction.”

NAME: Petr Sykora
SIGNED: July 2, 2007
NOTES: The Penguins landed one of the prizes of the 2007 free agent class when they inked scoring winger Petr Sykora to a two-year deal on July 2 of that year. Sykora, who had won a Stanley Cup with New Jersey in 2000, had scored 21 or more goals in eight of his 11 seasons in the league prior to signing with the Penguins, twice hitting the 30-goal plateau. The Czech forward settled right in on a line alongside sophomore center Evgeni Malkin, with the two European born-and-trained players complementing each other well. Sykora’s most memorable moment as a Penguin came in Game 5 of the 2008 Stanley Cup Final, when he scored the game-winning goal in triple overtime to lift Pittsburgh over Detroit, 4-3. Although the Penguins would fall to the Red Wings in six games that year, Sykora would get his name etched on the Cup a second time when Pittsburgh captured the championship in 2009.

NAME: Ruslan Fedotenko
SIGNED: July 3, 2008
NOTES: Before Ruslan Fedotenko signed a one-year deal with the Penguins on July 3, 2008, he led Tampa Bay to the 2004 Stanley Cup by scoring a whopping 12 times in 22 games during the Lightning’s playoff run – including both goals in their 2-1 Game 7 Cup Final win over Calgary. Fedotenko would cement that reputation as a clutch playoff goal scorer with Pittsburgh in 2009, when he tallied seven goals and 14 points in 24 games during the Penguins’ run to the Stanley Cup playing on a line with star center Evgeni Malkin. Fedotenko played physical, forechecked hard and was responsible defensively during his time in Pittsburgh. When Dan Bylsma was named interim head coach in February 2009, Fedotenko fit his up-tempo and aggressive system designed to wear opposing teams down perfectly. In fact, Bylsma playfully nicknamed his style of play “Ruslan Fedotenko hockey” after a team meeting in which the Ukranian forward fully endorsed the new coach’s systematic approach to his teammates.

NAME: Matt Cooke
SIGNED: July 5, 2008
NOTES: With the departure of forward Jarkko Ruutu after the 2007-08 season, the Penguins needed somebody to step in and fulfill the “agitator” role that Ruutu had so perfected – and was now vacant. That’s where gritty forward Matt Cooke came in. Pittsburgh signed Cooke to a two-year contract in July 2008, wooing him away from Vancouver, the only NHL organization he had known since being drafted by them in 1998. Not only did Cooke step right in and get under his opponents’ skin with his physical play and prickly techniques, but he had also proven hugely effective in many other respects. He became a top penalty killer for the Penguins and simultaneously racked up an impressive amount of points considering the type of role he played (proven by the fact that he hit double digits in goals in seven of his previous eight seasons before arriving in Pittsburgh). Cooke jumped right in his first season and tied his career high of 15 goals while ranking first on the team with 262 hits, helping the Penguins win the 2009 Stanley Cup.

NAME: Mike Rupp
SIGNED: July 1, 2009
NOTES: After winning the Stanley Cup on June 12, 2009, just a few weeks later the Penguins added even more leadership (and a physical presence) to their roster in Mike Rupp, as the 6-foot-5, 230-pound forward won a Stanley Cup as a rookie in 2003 with New Jersey. Despite seeing limited ice time on the fourth line, Rupp has excelled in the Penguins’ system as he has set new single-season career highs in each season with Pittsburgh. In 2009-10, he more than doubled his previous career high with 13 goals and established personal bests with 19 points and 81 games. Last year, Rupp once again hit 81 games played while setting new marks in assists (8) and penalty minutes (124). The physical aspect of Rupp’s game has also thrived in Pittsburgh, as he ranked second on the team with 198 hits in 2009-10 and third in 2010-11 with 181 checks. The rugged veteran also isn’t afraid to drop the gloves when the time is right. But not only has Rupp settled in on the ice, but he’s done so off the ice as well. Rupp has done a plethora of community work during the past two years, which has continued to strength him and his family’s bond with the city of Pittsburgh.


NAME: Brent Johnson
SIGNED: July 21, 2009
NOTES: The importance of Brent Johnson’s role to the Penguins over the past two seasons cannot be understated. After seeing a number of backup netminders come and go in previous years, the team signed Johnson to a one-year deal in July 2009 after the veteran goaltender posted a 12-6-2 record as Jose Theodore’s backup with Washington the previous season. Johnson had carved a niche for himself as a reliable second-in-command since entering the league in 1998, and he proved his dependability in that role when he served as franchise netminder Marc-Andre Fleury’s backup in 2009-10, posting a 10-6-1 record through 23 games (which earned him a two-year contract extension) while building a good relationship with Fleury. But it was the beginning of the 2010-11 campaign where Johnson’s worth truly shone. With Fleury experiencing a rough start to the season, Johnson more than held the fort between the pipes, posting an impressive 6-2-1 record.

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