Free-agent defenceman Adam Foote signed a three-year, $13.5 million US contract with the Columbus Blue Jackets on Tuesday.

One of the most coveted defenceman available on the open market, he bolsters a defence which ranked a dismal 24th of 30 teams in 2003-04.

"This is definitely a big step," Blue Jackets head coach Gerard Gallant said. "We knew the team would get better.

"But to get a guy like Adam Foote, that's huge for our hockey club. He will push our players hard every night."

"He is the total package," enthused Blue Jackets president and general manager Doug MacLean. "He is tremendously competitive, tough, smart.

"Moves the puck very well and is the definition of the word winner. He is a terrific addition to our organization and will be a key component to our continued evolution as a franchise."

Foote reportedly rejected a four-year, $12.5-million US offer from the Colorado Avalanche, with whom he captured Stanley Cups in 1996 and 2001.

"We thought it was very, very fair considering his age and the fact that we have to deal with a new financial landscape now," Avalanche vice-president of media relations Jean Martineau said of the offer.

"But he decided to take a little more money."

Foote, 34, has 55 goals, 234 points with 1,140 penalty minutes and a plus-143 rating in 799 games over 13 NHL seasons for the Quebec Nordiques and Avalanche.

The Toronto native was drafted in the second round - 22nd overall - by Quebec in 1989.

Foote is a noted dressing-room leader and helped Canada win the gold medal at the 2002 Salt Lake Olympic Winter Games and the 2004 World Cup of Hockey.

He joins a Columbus squad full of young offensive weapons, like Rick Nash, Nikolai Zherdev and rookie prospect Gilbert Brule.

with files from CP Online