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Toronto Maple Leafs sign unrestricted free-agent winger Jason Blake

The Canadian Press
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The Hockey News
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Toronto Maple Leafs sign unrestricted free-agent winger Jason Blake

The Canadian Press
By:

Toronto signed unrestricted free agent Jason Blake to a US$20-million, five-year contract Sunday - a relative bargain for a player who ranked 10th in the NHL with 40 goals for the New York Islanders last season.

Blake is expected to bolster an already-potent Maple Leafs offence. Toronto finished seventh in the NHL in goals scored last season despite finishing without a 30-goal scorer.

The 33-year-old said he's ready for the challenge of donning the blue and white.

"It's a new chapter in my life," said Blake. "I know Toronto wants to win, and the fans want to see them win. Hopefully I bring a piece to the puzzle that helps them do that."

Blake, a four-time 20-goal scorer, will make $5 million next season, $4.5 million in each of the following two seasons and $3 million in the final two years of his deal. His deal compares favourably to the $7 million-plus per season commanded by fellow free agents Chris Drury, Scott Gomez and Daniel Briere, all of whom signed Sunday.

With the majority of top-tier free agents finding new homes on the first day of free agency, Leafs general manager John Ferguson Jr. knew he had to act fast to secure Blake's services.

"With the competitiveness of his play, combined with some of the new rules, he's really going to augment our lineup up front," Ferguson said in a conference call. "He was a guy that we felt we really had to focus on, and we went right after him."

The five-foot-10, 185-pounder finished with career highs in goals and points (69) while playing all 82 games last season. The speedy winger is also an accomplished penalty-killer who isn't afraid to get in an opponent's face - making him an adequate replacement for unrestricted free agent Mike Peca, who may be on his way out of town.

"What I liked about Jason is that I really didn't like Jason," joked Toronto head coach Paul Maurice. "He was a guy you were not very happy with from your own bench. And that, for me, is the draw."

The Leafs have looked for a first-line winger to play with captain Mats Sundin and hope they've found it in Blake, who showed a penchant for the dramatic goal with seven game-winners last season.

Despite approaching his mid-30s, Blake doesn't have the mileage most NHLers have at his age. The late bloomer, who attended the University of North Dakota until he was 25, has played in just 508 career games with the Los Angeles Kings and Islanders, recording 134 goals and 152 assists.

The Moorhead, Minn., native shrugged off concerns he'll be 38 when his contract comes to an end in 2012.

"I keep myself in top shape all year long," said Blake. "I'm looking to play as long as I can. I'd like to play until I'm 50."

Blake's signing goes a long way in filling the final item on Ferguson's off-season shopping list. Looking for depth up front and in goal, Toronto acquired netminder Vesa Toskala and forward Mark Bell in a trade with San Jose on June 23.

Blake identified the trade as one of the factors in his decision to sign with the Leafs.

"They've got a new goaltender, they've got a lot of great forwards, and they're a great team," said Blake. "I think I'll fit in good there."

While Toronto isn't expected to make any more splashes in the free-agent market, Ferguson said the Leafs may still do something on the trade front. But he added that he's satisfied with the Leafs in their current state.

"We feel really good about what we have," said Ferguson.

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Toronto Maple Leafs sign unrestricted free-agent winger Jason Blake