By Adding Kurri, Ducks May Be Ready to See the Finnish Line
Wayne Gretzky and Bernie Nicholls wanted contract offers from the Mighty Ducks and couldn’t get them. But the Ducks finally made their first bold move of the summer Wednesday, agreeing to a one-year deal with another former King, Jari Kurri, that will pay him $1.5 million next season and includes a club option for the 1997-98 season.
Kurri, 36, will be the first sure-fire future Hall of Famer to wear a Duck jersey, although he is coming off his least productive season. Nevertheless, he could still be the third-best player on a Duck team that has two young stars in Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne but drops off sharply after that.
The acquisition is the first notable free-agent signing in the Ducks’ short history. They had no interest in Gretzky, partly because of the size of his contract, and recently backed away from pursuing Nicholls, 35, saying he also was too expensive so near the end of his career. Nicholls, who scored 19 goals and 60 points in 59 games for Chicago last season, later signed a two-year contract with San Jose that averages $2.2 million a year.
Anaheim General Manager Jack Ferreira said the prospect of signing Kurri “is why I didn’t make a move on Nicholls.”
Dallas had offered Kurri $1.5 million and the New York Rangers offered $1 million but withdrew the offer after signing Gretzky. Vancouver also showed interest.
Kurri was traded from the Kings to the Rangers in March along with Marty McSorley and Shane Churla for four players and a draft pick, largely because he was eligible to become a free agent this summer. After scoring 17 goals and 40 points for the Kings, he finished the season with 45 points in 71 games.
“The thing about him is his leadership,” Ferreira said. “He’s a great leader and he’s won so many Stanley Cups [five]. He’s one of the best defensive players in the game, one of the best penalty-killers and one of the best two-way players ever to play the game.”
A seven-time NHL all-star, Kurri has 583 goals and 758 assists. He had six 100-point seasons with the Edmonton Oilers in the 1980s, including a 71-goal season in 1984-85. His 105 playoff goals rank third to Gretzky and Mark Messier, and he ranks fourth in playoff assists and third in points.
“His offensive skills have diminished over time, but he’s always been one of the best defensive players in the NHL,” Duck Coach Ron Wilson said. “For a while there, everybody considered him the best two-way player in the world.
“He gives us lots of options on special teams. Having a player that versatile, he can play any forward position as well as the point on the power play. It allows me the opportunity to play Paul and Teemu on different lines, or all three together.”
Kurri, who is in Europe training with the Finnish national team for the World Cup later this month and could not be reached, is expected to sign the contract when he returns to North America.
His agent, Don Baizley, said returning to Southern California was part of the appeal of joining the Ducks.
Ferreira reached Kurri to discuss the deal as he was preparing for an exhibition game with the Finnish team, which includes Selanne, an ebullient sort who quickly announced the deal to everyone in earshot.
“Jari Kurri was Teemu’s favorite player when he was younger,” Wilson said. “This gives him the opportunity to play with him, and not just on a national team. He’s someone with that kind of experience winning Stanley Cups. He knows what it takes to win, and he can impart that knowledge to Teemu and Paul Kariya.”
The Ducks announced four additional exhibition games, all on the road: Sept. 21 against the New York Rangers at Las Vegas, Sept. 23 against the Pittsburgh Penguins at Portland, Ore.; Sept. 28 at Edmonton and Sept. 30 at Vancouver. The previously announced four home games begin against the Kings on Sept. 15 at the Pond.
Times staff writer Helene Elliott contributed to this story.
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The Jari Kurri File
* Age: 36.
* Born: Helsinki. May 18, 1960.
* Position: Right wing.
* NHL career: Won five Stanley Cups with Edmonton, one more than Wayne Gretzky. Has scored more NHL points than any other European player. Ranks 12th overall with 1,341 points. Ranks seventh in goals with 583. Ranks third to Gretzky and Mark Messier in playoff goals with 105 and is fourth in playoff assists (125) and third in playoff points (230).
* Personal: He and his wife, Tina, have twin sons, Joonas and Ville.
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