CHICAGO – Stanley Cup-winning goalie Nikolai Khabibulin signed a four-year, $27 million contract with the Chicago Blackhawks on Friday, leaving the defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning.

Khabibulin played in 55 regular-season games for the Lightning during 2003-04, posting a 28-19-7 record with three shutouts, a 2.33 goals against average and a .910 save percentage.

In the playoffs, he was 16-7 with an NHL-best five shutouts. His 1.71 goals-against average ranked second.

“I’m just going to try to do the best job I can and hopefully help the Blackhawks win the Stanley Cup,” he said.

The 32-year-old Khabibulin is 209-187-58 in 476 regular-season games with 35 shutouts and a 2.61 goals-against average for Winnipeg-Phoenix and Tampa Bay during his nine NHL seasons. He is 31-25 with six shutouts in the playoffs.

The Blackhawks, who have reached the playoffs only once in seven seasons, have significantly improved their defense since the free agent shopping season began Monday.

“This is a big day, a great day for our franchise,” general manager Dale Tallon said. “Nik was the number-one guy we wanted to get. We fought hard all week to get this done.”

Chicago signed former New York Islanders All-Star defenseman Adrian Aucoin to a four-year, $16 million contract on Tuesday. The Blackhawks also signed winger Martin Lapointe to a three-year, $7.2 million deal and defenseman Jaroslav Spacek to a one-year, $2.25 contract.

The biggest forward taken off the market Friday was former Colorado left-winger Paul Kariya. Terms weren’t immediately available, but Kariya reportedly signed for two years and $9 million.

Kariya had career lows with 11 goals and 36 points in an injury-plagued season that limited him to just 51 games in his only season in Colorado. He spent eight seasons with Anaheim, helping the Mighty Ducks reach the Stanley Cup finals in 2003.

Kariya signs two-year deal with Predators

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The Nashville Predators fought for a fair labor deal for small market teams to help them compete in the NHL. They followed through with the biggest signing in the expansion franchise’s short history.

Paul Kariya signed a two-year, $9 million deal with the Predators on Friday. It’s the left-wing’s third team in three seasons, and he becomes Nashville’s biggest scoring threat yet. “This is a day we’ve been waiting for for a long time for this franchise,” general manager David Poile said.

“He had a lot of places to go. The fact (is) he chose Nashville, and I think in some regards that’s got to be somewhat of a stunner that he chose here instead of going to some other bigger market where he could get more fanfare.”

The 30-year-old forward spent his first seven NHL seasons with Anaheim, helping the Mighty Ducks reach the Stanley Cup finals in 2003. Then he joined up with former teammate Teemu Selanne, and the pair signed free agent deals with Colorado for the 2003-04 season. He said he chose Nashville because the Predators started courting him the instant free agency opened.

“They showed a commitment to me that I was the guy they wanted to bring to Nashville, and I was very excited about their hockey club,” Kariya said in a teleconference.

“I think it’s a great young hockey club that’s only going to get better. I’m really excited about the speed and the goaltending. With the new rules changes coming, I think it’s only going to benefit Nashville.”

Predators owner Craig Leipold was on the league’s executive committee, which negotiated the new collective bargaining agreement with the $39 million salary cap that ended the season-long lockout.

“This is exactly what we dreamed about when we talked about the new CBA and being on a more level playing field,” Poile said. “We’ve seen that already to a certain extent in the free agency period … The dollars are more evenly spread. These guys now are at least attracted to our markets.”

Lemieux group to keep Penguins

PITTSBURGH – Don’t remove the owner’s tag from Pittsburgh Penguins owner-player Mario Lemieux’s title just yet.

In an about-face brought about partly by the team drafting Canadian super prospect Sidney Crosby, the Penguins said Friday that Lemieux’s group will retain its majority ownership. William “Boots” DelBiaggio, a San Jose-based businessman who was to buy a majority stake, will instead buy a minority share.

The sudden change of plans may be a result of the franchise substantially increasing value since it won the NHL draft lottery two weeks ago and subsequently drafted Crosby, considered the NHL’s best teenage prospect since Lemieux in 1984.

Since winning the lottery, the Penguins have sold thousands of season tickets for the 2005-06 season and have had to add extra employees to handle ticket sales – even before single-game ticket sales have begun.

Crosby to miss Canada junior camp

PITTSBURGH – Sidney Crosby will skip the Canadian junior national team development camp next weekend to attend the Pittsburgh Penguins’ rookie orientation camp.

Crosby, the No. 1 pick in last weekend’s NHL entry draft, would have to miss part of the NHL season in December to play for the Canadian junior team, as the Penguins allowed 2003 No. 1 draft pick Marc-Andre Fleury to do.

But there seems little chance the Penguins would part with their prized draft pick, especially during a peak attendance period. The team’s season ticket sales have taken a large upswing since the Penguins won the NHL draft lottery two weeks ago and subsequently chose Crosby – Canada’s top junior scorer since Penguins owner-player Mario Lemieux in the early 1980s.

With Crosby not attending camp, Hockey Canada replaced Crosby with Windsor Spitfires forward Steve Downie, the Philadelphia Flyers’ first-round pick in the July 30 draft. The Canadian junior camp is scheduled for Aug. 10-16 in Whistler, British Columbia.

Crosby, who turns 18 on Sunday, will make his first trip to Pittsburgh for the rookie weekend. He is scheduled to arrive in Pittsburgh on Wednesday and undergo physical testing and orientation Thursday and Friday.

“We did this for the first time in the summer of 2003, and we believe it’s a good way for some of our young prospects to come into town and get to know a little bit about our organization and our city before training camp,” Penguins general manager Craig Patrick said in a statement. “We’ll put them through a series of tests, and they’ll also have a chance to meet with our coaches and trainers.”

Other Penguins prospects expected to attend are center Ryan Stone (second round, 2003), defenseman Noah Welch (second round, 2001), defenseman Ryan Lannon (eighth round, 2002), center Jordan Morrison (seventh round, 2004) and defenseman Jean-Philippe Paquet (sixth round, 2005).

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