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ALSO ON SLAM!
Monday, July 24, 2000
Hurricanes sign Ozolinsh to five-year dealRALEIGH, N.C. (AP) -- The Carolina Hurricanes came up with the big bucks for all-star defenceman Sandis Ozolinsh, announcing Monday the restricted free agent has signed a five-year contract worth more than $25 million.
Ozolinsh, 27, who came to Carolina from Colorado in a draft-day trade last month, agreed to a deal that takes him one year beyond the minimum required to become an unrestricted free agent.
The deal will pay Ozolinsh $4 million next season, $5 million in 2001-02 and $5.5 million in each of the last three years.
Ozolinsh made $4 million last season as Colorado's third-highest paid player. He had 16 goals and 36 assists in 82 games. The four-time all-star was a Norris Trophy finalist in 1997.
"I'm very excited. It's a new team, it's a new beginning for me. Hopefully we can be successful and win the Cup along the way," Ozolinsh said.
The signing challenges a perception the Hurricanes are unwilling to pay its players, an image fostered by last year's contract battle with centre Keith Primeau and the team's choice to allow defencemen Paul Coffey and Sean Hill and left-winger Gary Roberts to sign with other teams this month.
"When you have a player like Sandis, you're willing to spend the money," general manager Jim Rutherford said. "We're willing to pay any player the fair market value and in this case we're very fortunate to have a premier defenceman."
The Hurricanes spent more than half of last season in a contract dispute with Primeau, who was also a restricted free agent. Primeau was eventually dealt in late January to Philadelphia for Rod Brind'Amour and rookie goaltender Jean-Marc Pelletier.
The Hurricanes got the rights to the six-foot-three, 205-pound Ozolinsh in a draft-day trade last month in exchange for defenceman Nolan Pratt, Carolina's first-round pick (14th overall), and both second-round picks.
Ozolinsh sat out 38 games during the 1998-99 season before re-signing with Colorado, but declined to file for salary arbitration July 15 because he and the team felt a deal was near, Rutherford said.
Coach Paul Maurice said Ozolish's scoring skills will allow Carolina to play a more open-ended style.
"You don't see any of the top-end teams in the league play without a premier defenceman and that's what we've done," Maurice said.
Maurice recalled that in Colorado's only visit to Raleigh last season, Ozolinsh scored twice in the third period to turn a 2-1 Hurricanes advantage into a 3-2 loss.
"There are some things that he can do that very few other people in our game can do and that's carry the puck and find the hole. Maybe he does that better than any other defenceman in the league -- read the rush and find the hole," Maurice said. "You're not exactly sure where he started from but you know he has the puck in front of your net and that's not what you wanted."
Ozolinsh demurred to any comparison to Coffey, a likely Hall of Famer, though Rutherford repeatedly said the Latvian was superior to any defenceman Carolina has put on the ice.
The agreement reunites Ozolinsh with goaltender Arturs Irbe. The close friends played together in Latvia and in San Jose, share an agent and together fund a youth hockey organization that buys equipment for kids in their home land.
"We work out in summers, we hang out in summers together and talk on the phone when we're not playing against each other," Ozolinsh said.
Irbe finished fifth in the NHL last season with 34 wins while playing in a league-high 75 games.
Ozolinsh, a Stanley Cup-winner with Colorado in 1995-96, said building champions requires team chemistry and sacrifice. He said Irbe described a Hurricanes team personality with elements crucial to a title run.
"What I heard from Archie, he said this is a very hardworking club on the ice and off the ice," said Ozolinsh, who joins a team which had an average attendance of 12,400 -- second worst in the NHL.