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Tverdovsky Signs by Ducks’ Deadline

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Mighty Ducks, still mired in a contract stalemate with 1993 draft choice Paul Kariya, signed this year’s first-round pick Oleg Tverdovsky on Monday--and quickly admitted they’re trying to send Kariya a message.

Tverdovsky, an offensively talented defenseman who was the second pick in June’s NHL draft, became the first of this year’s top picks to sign, agreeing to a three-year deal worth $4.2 million, including $2.5 million in signing bonuses.

“One thing we’re happy about is (Tverdovsky) showed that he really wants to play and wants to come here,” General Manager Jack Ferreira said from Boston, where he is attending NHL meetings. “We’re excited because we think he was the best player in the draft, and he’s going to be a Mighty Duck.

“Hopefully now (Kariya) sees we’re extremely serious about getting guys into our lineup.”

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Kariya, 19, a strikingly creative playmaker who starred for Canada in the Olympics and World Championships after being drafted fourth overall last year, is reportedly seeking at least $2 million a year--more than a million a year more than the Ducks initially offered and considerably more than the $1.4 million average Tverdovsky will earn.

But both sides had considerable motivation in Tverdovsky’s case. The Ducks beat a Monday deadline related to Tverdovsky’s release from his Moscow team--perhaps saving several hundred thousand dollars by not having to try to negotiate a buyout of the final two years on his Russian contract. And Tverdovsky, 18, can achieve his dream of playing in the NHL--and secure a quick departure from Russia, where many players fear for their safety because of recent extortion attempts by the so-called Russian mafia.

“I’m very happy to become a Mighty Duck,” Tverdovsky said through an interpreter from his agent’s Toronto office. “This is the best arrangement that could possibly happen this year.”

Kariya’s agent, Don Baizley, will argue that Tverdovsky’s contract isn’t relevant to his client’s even though Tverdovsky was a higher pick--saying that since the draft Kariya has proven himself against NHL talent in the World Championships. Even Ferreira doesn’t expect to be able sign Kariya for less than he did Tverdovsky. Asked if he would be willing to sign Kariya to the same deal, Ferreira replied quickly: “Done.”

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Ferreira and other general managers have insisted the contracts signed by last year’s top picks, Ottawa’s Alexandre Daigle ($12.25 million for five years) and Hartford’s Chris Pronger ($7 million for four years) were “aberrations.”

There was speculation at this year’s draft that the Ducks, despite their profitable first season, might have passed over the top-rated prospect, Radek Bonk, because of reluctance to meet his anticipated contract demands. Ferreira denies that and says he rated Tverdovsky first.

Though Tverdovsky’s total package is worth less than the contract of last year’s second pick (Pronger), Tverdovsky’s agent, Don Meehan, says the first two years are comparable to Pronger’s first two years--and, more important, that Tverdovsky will be able to renegotiate when he reaches his option year after only two seasons.

Contract terms haven’t meant much in the Kariya talks lately. With the opening of training camp Sept. 4 fast approaching, Baizley has put negotiations on hold while he seeks a clarification from the NHL about Kariya’s free-agent status if he isn’t signed this year.

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Baizley has said it is a matter of leverage, that knowing whether the Ducks stand to lose Kariya entirely or would have the right to match any offers is a determining factor in his value.

Though Kariya has never said he is reluctant to play for the Ducks, Baizley responded to a question recently by saying, “I would think any talented young player would rather have 26 teams to choose from than one.”

Said Ferreira: “I don’t know if he’s looking for a way out. I think he just wants to know his options. That’s what they keep saying.”

The Ducks consider Kariya a cornerstone of their franchise, but trading him could become an option, though not a pleasant one.

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“You wouldn’t get equal quality for a guy you’re having trouble signing. No one’s going to take your headaches and give you equal value,” Ferreira said. “It can be frustrating, but you can’t get too aggravated with it, or you’ll lose perspective for what you’re trying to accomplish.”

Tverdovsky, at least, is in the fold. He is seen as the point man of the future for the Ducks’ struggling power play, and Coach Ron Wilson is planning to pair him with a strong defensive veteran such as Randy Ladouceur, Bobby Dollas or Robert Dirk. The idea is for him to be brought along slowly and “spoon-fed” this season.

The language barrier, Wilson said, is of little concern.

“All he’s got to understand is my tone of voice. He’ll know when I’m upset or when I’m happy.”

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