PITTSBURGH (AP) – John LeClair probably wouldn’t have given a thought a few weeks ago to joining a last-place team like the Pittsburgh Penguins. Sidney Crosby, Ziggy Palffy, Sergei Gonchar and Jocelyn Thibault changed his thinking.

John LeClair, let go by the Philadelphia Flyers in the first wave of NHL salary dumping last month, signed a two-year contract Monday with Pittsburgh – the Penguins’ fifth major player addition in slightly more than two weeks.

LeClair adds another established scorer to a radically reshaped team that finished last in the overall 2003-04 standings but now has the look of a playoff team after acquiring offensive-minded defenseman Gonchar, the high-scoring Palffy, goaltender Thibault and drafting top prospect Crosby. The team also signed another former Flyers star, Mark Recchi, before the labor dispute shut down the 2004-05 season.

“It’s exciting – they’re an up and coming team,” said LeClair, who made up his mind Monday morning to join a longtime rival. “I’ve talked to Mark and I know he’s excited to be there. They’ve added some players.”

General manager Craig Patrick, who needed only 2 weeks to reconfigure a team coming off three consecutive losing seasons, said the Penguins likely wouldn’t have gotten LeClair without adding the other pieces.

“Definitely, in John’s case,” Patrick said. “It’s very special to get these kind of people – not just great players, but great people in the locker room.”

Perhaps more than any other team, the Penguins have turned the economic advantages afforded smaller-market clubs by the new NHL labor agreement – especially the salary cap – into their advantage. They spent most of the last three seasons dumping players such as Jaromir Jagr, Robert Lang and Alex Kovalev because they couldn’t afford to keep them.

“We were positioned well for what we had to deal with, and it’s worked out very well,” Patrick said. “For the first time around in this, it was hard to really anticipate what might happen, but we’re very, very pleased.”

The 36-year-old LeClair not only is one of the NHL’s top goal scorers over the last nine seasons, the 6-foot-3, 225-pound forward adds a physical presence to a team that badly needed one during three consecutive losing seasons from 2001-04. The five-time All-Star has 382 goals and 379 assists for 761 points in 873 career games.

“John is a big, strong winger who is a proven and consistently productive goal-scorer,” Patrick said. “His presence further strengthens the group of forwards we’re assembling here in Pittsburgh.”

LeClair spent 10 years with the Flyers, part of them as the left wing on the “Legion of Doom” line with Eric Lindros and Mikael Renberg in the mid-1990s. He was to have made $9 million in 2004-05 in the final year of a five-year contract, or $6.84 million after the leaguewide 24 percent rollback, but was bought out for $4.56 million. LeClair and Tony Amonte were let go by the Flyers on July 23.

“I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do then, there was some interest out there … but I thought this was the best fit,” said LeClair, who didn’t say who else was interested. “They’ve added a lot of offense.”

Since the Penguins last played in April 2004, they have added two of the Flyers’ top three scorers from that season – Recchi, who led the team with 26 goals and 75 points, and LeClair, who was third with 55 points on 23 goals and 32 assists.

The Penguins had the league’s smallest payroll – and lowest attendance – in 2003-04, but now figure to be in the middle range of salaries at about $32 million. Their finances also improved appreciably after they drafted Crosby, causing a stampede for tickets that could lead to nearly every home game being sold out.

Also Monday, the Penguins signed former Capitals and Blackhawks defenseman Steve Poapst and avoided contract arbitration with defenseman Josef Melichar, who agreed to a two-year deal that will pay him $700,000 this season. He has three goals and 10 assists in 168 career games.

The 36-year-old Poapst has only eight goals in 245 NHL games but often provides a tough matchup for opposing forwards and is strong on the penalty-killing unit.

Center Matt Hussey and left wing Guillaume Lefebvre also accepted the Penguins’ qualifying offers.


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