Both players receive two-year deals

MIAMI -- Joe Nieuwendyk and Gary Roberts wanted the chance
to finish their careers together. The Florida Panthers sought savvy
veterans to mold their young talent into winners.

"It's a very attractive situation," Nieuwendyk said.
Indeed, for both sides. The Panthers made the first move in
hockey's free agent signing period Monday, signing the four-time
All-Star center Nieuwendyk and longtime left wing Roberts away from
the Toronto Maple Leafs less than 90 minutes after the window for
new moves opened.
Nieuwendyk, who's won the Stanley Cup with three franchises, and
Roberts will both receive $4.5 million over the next two years from
Florida, which hasn't won a playoff game since 1997.
"These two players are consummate professionals and will
basically teach our younger players," Panthers general manager
Mike Keenan said. "First of all, how to be a professional in many
respects -- and how to win."
Roberts is 39, Nieuwendyk 38. They join a locker room in Florida
stacked with potential, like goaltender Roberto Luongo, defenseman
Jay Bouwmeester, and centers Stephen Weiss, Nathan Horton and Olli Jokinen, none of whom are older than 26.
"I just know we're ecstatic about the opportunity to come down
with probably a younger group of guys than we had in Toronto and a
great goaltender in Luongo," Roberts said. "We feel we can make
an impact and make the Florida Panthers a better hockey team."
Each has a familiarity with new Panthers coach Jacques Martin,
another plus supporting the move. In the NHL's new age that will
seemingly lead to parity, the duo believes that Florida, which
made the Stanley Cup finals in 1996, yet hasn't even reached the
postseason since 2000, could improve greatly and quickly.
"I don't see any reason why they can't do what Tampa Bay did up
the road, going to the finals and winning," Nieuwendyk said,
referring to the Lightning's 2004 Stanley Cup title. "I don't
think Gary and I are going there to be just part of a playoff team.
We're going there to try to put a lot of wins on the board."
Nieuwendyk had 22 goals and 28 assists in 64 games with the
Maple Leafs in 2003-04, but he missed parts of the year with back
problems. Nieuwendyk, who won the 1999 Conn Smythe Award with the
Dallas Stars and has 533 goals and 529 assists in 18 NHL seasons,
signed a one-year, $3 million contract with Toronto last spring,
before the season was lost in the lockout.
Roberts had 20 goals and 28 assists with the Maple Leafs in
2003-04 and was named to the Eastern Conference All-Star team that
season. The 17-year NHL veteran played just 14 games the previous
season after he missed the first 57 games recovering from offseason
shoulder operations.
But Keenan said the durability of Nieuwendyk and Roberts isn't a
major worry.
"We don't have that much of a concern or we wouldn't have hired
them. ... They're both well-trained athletes. They're both
respectful of how they look after themselves," Keenan said.
Nieuwendyk and Roberts have long been linked. They grew up
playing together, first as opponents from the age of 5, then for
many years on the same youth-level teams and even played lacrosse
together as kids. Later, they spent nearly a decade playing
together with the Calgary Flames, and have always been close.
They were offered to the Panthers as a package deal, and Keenan
found it too intriguing to decline.
"We had to make a decision or lose them to competitors. ... The
fact they could play together was more enticing than the
financing," Keenan said.
Rick Curran, the agent for both players, said Toronto general
manager John Ferguson did make an offer during the window where the
Maple Leafs held exclusive negotiating rights. Curran said talks
with the Leafs went on for a "week to 10 days, in attempting to
see if we could come up with something."
Curran said Ferguson made a final offer Monday, and he offered
it to Nieuwendyk and Roberts.
"We started our careers together and we wanted to finish our
careers together," Roberts said. "And going to Florida gives us
that opportunity."
With hundreds of players on the market, the free agent signing
period is expected to be wilder than ever. Many teams have fewer
than 10 players under contract for the upcoming season.
Stars from forward Peter Forsberg to defensemen Scott
Niedermayer and Brian Leetch are available, but they might not go
to the highest bidder. Teams can only pay players up to 20 percent
of the new $39 million salary cap.
"In the old days, it was they may not be willing to give it to
you," Curran said. "Now they just can't."
The free agent season usually begins on July 1, but this first
post-lockout summer made for a busy Monday. The activity should
stretch through August and continue until training camps open next
"I think it was a little more active," New Jersey Devils general
manager Lou Lamoriello said. "It's really tough to compare because
July 1 was totally different than this because this had to do with
free agents that came from the entry level players, non-drafted
players and American League players.
"Everything came today, whereas it was spread out in the past
and will be in the future."
Lamoriello said he had many conversations throughout the day,
some he initiated and some that were spurred by calls to him. He
declined to say whether he had talks with Niedermayer's camp about
keeping him with the Devils.