PITTSBURGH (AP) – By adding No. 1 overall pick Sidney Crosby to a team already restocked with talented free agents, the Pittsburgh Penguins feel they’ve turned back the clock to the early 1990s – when they were two-time Stanley Cup champions and perennial contenders. The terms of Crosby’s three-year contract, $850,000 in salary each season with the chance to double that with performance incentives, were dictated largely by the league’s new labor agreement, making those figures less compelling than Crosby’s potential to make Pittsburgh hockey’s best team once again.

“It’s like it was back in the early 90s when we were coming to camp with a chance to win a championship every year,” general manager Craig Patrick said of Crosby’s signing Friday.

“I feel very fortunate to be in this situation,” Crosby said. “A lot of guys … who are drafted early go to a team that’s maybe rebuilding, but that’s not the case here.”

The Penguins appear to be completely rebuilt as they prepare to open camp Tuesday with a week’s worth of practice in Pittsburgh before moving to their Wilkes-Barre, Pa., minor league affiliate’s arena.

Crosby will make his NHL debut Oct. 5 – Mario Lemieux’s 40th birthday – at New Jersey.

When the puck drops that night, the Penguins will have completed an offseason unlike any other, during which the NHL became the first major North American sports league to lose an entire season to a labor dispute.

The Penguins stocked up on high-profile free agents like defensemen Sergei Gonchar and Lyle Odelein, forwards Ziggy Palffy and John LeClair, and goaltender Jocelyn Thibault. Now comes Crosby, who’s helped sell tickets at a record pace since the Penguins won the NHL draft lottery July 22.

In the NHL’s last season, 2003-04, the Penguins averaged just 11,877 fans a game and finished with 58 points (23-47-8-4) – both the worst in the league.

Since winning the rights to Crosby, the Penguins have already sold more tickets for this season than they did in the last season, and believe their on-ice outlook is much improved.

“Five or six teams have a real good chance (to win the Stanley Cup) and we feel we’re one of those teams,” said owner-player Mario Lemieux, who has helped resuscitate the team’s fortunes several times with comebacks from injury and retirement, and by putting a group together to buy the team out of bankruptcy six years ago.

Crosby’s contract terms were largely a formality dictated by the NHL’s new collective bargaining agreement limiting first-year players to $850,000 in salary and $850,000 in statistical and playing-time bonuses. Crosby could earn slightly more than $2 million more each season in team and league bonuses, but would have to be the league’s rookie of the year, scoring leader and win the Hart trophy as the MVP.

The negotiations were so simple that Patrick, who has a reputation as a hard bargainer, quipped, “I surrendered right away.”

Crosby has been touted as another Wayne Gretzky or Lemieux, who didn’t quibble with that notion.

“I think so. Not only (because of) his talent, but the way he thinks about the game,” Lemieux said. “He’s dedicated to the game of hockey. A lot of guys have had talent in the past, but to put the mind that he has with his talent is special.”

Crosby, 18, has scored 120 goals and 183 assists in 121 games the past two seasons with Rimouski in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, and was Canada’s major junior player of the year both seasons. He became youngest player to score for Canada’s world juniors team when he had a goal at the championships at age 16 years, 4 months, 24 days.

Lemieux said Crosby was ready to play in the NHL last year. Crosby is confident, but more cautious in assessing his ability to measure up to Lemieux or Gretzky.

“I’m looking at it as short-term as possible. I want to have a good camp and push myself to raise my game as best I can,” Crosby said. “Obviously, this is a new level, but the pressure has always been there. I’ve always put a lot of pressure on myself to perform.”

AP-ES-09-09-05 1604EDT

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