Jul 1, 2011, 8:00 AM EDT
So just where is Brad Richards going to wind up when the free agent semi-frenzy kicks off at noon? The former Conn Smythe Trophy winner with the 2004 Tampa Bay Lightning and now former Dallas Star is the most desired free agent this summer. Unlike last year when Ilya Kovalchuk was the main squeeze and he had basically two suitors in the Kings and Devils, the field to go after Richards is a bit bigger.
With teams having a bit more cap space or more need to spend big bucks thanks to the jump in the salary cap and salary floor, targeting Richards is the “in” thing to do this year. With some teams in desperate need for a playmaker or first line center, Richards at 31 years-old and a proven point producer he fits the bill for a lot of teams… But who? We’ve got a list of the five teams (in order of likelihood) we think stand the best shot at landing Richards come noontime.
1. New York Rangers
Why wouldn’t it be the Rangers? His former coach from the Lightning is there in John Tortorella, the Rangers have a burning need for a #1 center and playmaker, and the Rangers have been lusting after him since the trade deadline. Richards in New York makes a world of sense for them and they obviously don’t fear coughing up a monster contract to land him.
That said, the Rangers recent history in going after top centers isn’t so hot. They just bought out their most recent savior at center in Chris Drury and they traded Scott Gomez away two summers ago after he failed to live up to expectations. Drury’s example is one the Rangers should take particular care to look at as he too was 31 when he signed with the Rangers. The big production he had with Buffalo dropped off in a hurry. While that could be in the back of their heads, the possibility of seeing Richards feed Marian Gaborik endless feeds for goals is more on the mind of GM Glen Sather and we can’t fault him for that.
2. Toronto Maple Leafs
The Leafs also are in need of a true first line center and they’ve got a couple of fun scorers that would benefit from Richards’ passes in Nikolai Kulemin and Phil Kessel. While Mikhail Grabovski is a fine center in his own right, getting Richards in there to spark those two would give Toronto a top line to fear and deepen the team considerably.
The issue for Richards might be in having to play in the hyper-crazy hockey market that is Toronto. With the pressure and demands that come with playing hockey in Toronto, the stress of trying to lead the Leafs back to the playoffs might be a bit too much for a calm and cool character like Richards. If he does go to Toronto, watching him operate in the fishbowl that is Toronto will prove to be a fascinating study. If money is a big motivator for Richards, Toronto could be his landing spot as the Leafs have enough cap space to burn to get him with as CapGeek points out they’ve got nearly $18 million left under the cap.
3. Buffalo Sabres
Yeah, we’re still thinking the Sabres are going to make Richards an offer and we still think that Buffalo is a team he should strongly consider. If Richards is looking for a major league payday, then Buffalo may not be the place to go. After bringing Robyn Regehr aboard via trade and then signing Christian Ehrhoff to a ridiculous 10-year, $40 million deal, according to CapGeek the Sabres are left with just over $7 million in salary cap space for next year with only 17 players signed and a need to lock up a backup goalie.
Of course, Terry Pegula has done wonders to sell Buffalo to both Regehr and Ehrhoff and if he can do that why not sell it to Brad Richards too? He can point out a spot on Buffalo’s first line playing alongside Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville or also teaming up with 30-goal scorer Drew Stafford and rising offensive player Tyler Ennis as well as a healthy Derek Roy. That looks pretty good and we’d think Richards would like that as well as the undying support the Sabres get at home.
4. Tampa Bay Lightning
All right so this is a bit of a reach. The Lightning are busy trying to get Steve Stamkos locked up to a long term deal and while there’s all sorts of nonsensical talk that a team will swoop in and try to poach Stamkos with an offer sheet, the lure of Richards going back to Tampa Bay has to be intriguing. Richards used to play for the Lightning and still calls the city his home. Now that Jeff Vinnik is in place as the owner and Steve Yzerman is there as the GM with Guy Boucher as the head coach, things are a lot more stable with the Lightning than they were when Richards was dealt away.
While it’s 98% likely that Stamkos will be back in Tampa, the possibility that Richards would take a sweetheart deal to play alongside his old pals in Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis to join up with those guys and Stamkos might be intriguing enough to bring him back. It’d give the Lightning a wealth of riches and a glut of top of the line centermen to figure out how to use, but having the Lightning bringing an All-Star team to the rink every night would be awfully fun.
5. Washington Capitals
We’ve played this dark horse card before a month ago when we looked at things and we’re sticking by it now. The Caps are letting Jason Arnott go to free agency and that clears out a spot for another top center. The Caps are going into today’s free agent party with a lot of cap room and a need for another playmaking center. Being able to march into battle each night with both Nicklas Backstrom and Brad Richards would give the Caps the two-pronged attack up the middle they’ve never had.
While guys like Arnott and Brendan Morrison in the past did OK, Richards would be the perfect kind of guy to either plug in next to Alex Ovechkin or Alex Semin to help spur them to huge offensive seasons. The team needs to find a way to keep Semin motivated all year and a competitor like Richards would be ideal in that role.
The Caps and GM George McPhee aren’t really huge splash makers on free agency day and they do have other areas to tend to (defense for instance) but grabbing Richards would send the message that the Caps are deadly serious about winning the Stanley Cup. If you’re worried about the money, the Caps are under the salary cap by about $10 million according to CapGeek. If your choices for a second center are Brad Richards or Marcus Johansson who would you be more comfortable with in chasing after the Cup? Exactly.
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