Richie Rich: Sizing up the Sweepstakes Part 1

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

His free agent destination is a mystery wrapped in an enigma. Brad Richards has given so many clues for so many different teams, it is impossible to say with any certainty where he will end up. We can only rule out one team without any doubt, and that is his current club, the Dallas Stars. Joe Nieuwendyk has openly admitted the Stars will not be able to offer Brad a contract extension. He is definitely leaving the Lone Star State but what happens beyond that is anyone’s guess.

Still, there is something to be said for an educated guess. Richards and his agent have done enough talking of late to lend support to some teams over others. They’ve talked about numerous factors which will play a role in the decision. Money, ownership and lifestyle have all been mentioned in the conversation. Using the quotes we have from Richards and his agent, media sources from around the league, a little common sense, and some personal speculation, the following are the teams with the best shot at landing the big prize on July 1st.

The Contenders

New York Rangers (20%)

The Rangers can offer Brad Richards a lot of the things he’s looking for. For starters, they are far and away the wealthiest American franchise in the league. They have the secure ownership Brad has said is important to him. The Rangers are not going anywhere. He need not fear talks of relocation nor entertain the possibility that the club may not be able to make payments on their arena. The Rangers can spend to and above the cap every year. They can offer Brad a potentially elite winger to play with in Gaborik, and a solid young team. For all these wonderful benefits, the Rangers lack the insane media coverage of their Canadian Original Six brethren. This would be appealing to some of the lifestyle comments Richards has made insinuating that he enjoys a certain degree of anonymity. Finally, they have the coach that led Richards to a Conn Smythe and a Stanley Cup in 2004.

On the surface, the Rangers seem like a perfect fit. However, if you dig a little deeper, there are loads of reasons to doubt this signing. It is anything but a home run as of right now. The Rangers can afford to add an expensive center like Richards, but they also have a lot of high calibre young forwards to resign. Further to that, if they overspend on their forward group, they’ll have almost no room to add to their defence, which could be one of the youngest groups in the league next year. A Richards signing would certainly make the team imbalanced – a fact that is at least worth considering for GM Glen Sather. Perhaps he feels that Lundqvist alone would help rectify that. Tortorella is also a part of the reason Richards had to leave Tampa in the first place and typically finds himself right next to Ron Wilson on the ‘least liked coaches’ list – so you also have to wonder how much of an allure Torts really is. More than anything though, prominent Rangers reporter Larry Brooks revealed on Twitter that his sources say the Ranger’s interest in Richards is not mutual.

Richards is not coming to NY.
It sounds as if it’s not his first choice.

Money might ultimately do the talking for the Rangers, as it usually does, but with their recent free agent track record (Redden, Gomez, Drury, Gaborik – all run out-of-town or heavily scrutinized by the media and fan base), it i hard to peg their odds of signing Richards at any better than one in five.

Tampa Bay Lightning (20%)

There is definitely interest on both sides of the equation as far as the idea of Richards in Tampa is concerned. Richards has said he never wanted to leave Tampa in the first place. He loves the lifestyle that southern teams provide. He even rents a condo in the city and spends much of the summer with childhood friend Vincent Lecavalier. Now the club appears to be on the verge of competing for a championship and Richards has the opportunity to return there at his own discretion.

Even though this appears to be a matchup that makes sense, there are a lot of real world factors that come into play here. For starters, the Tampa Bay Lightning have not fully rectified the ownership issues that were partially responsible for Richards leaving in the first place. While Jeff Vinik appears to be more reliable, he just lost 30 million dollars on a season that should have brought substantial success. He has to at least be questioning the financial viability of a club that loses that much money on route to a Conference Final. Yzerman has indicated the team will get a payroll increase, but will it be enough to target a big free agent like Brad Richards? Here’s what Richards had to say on the matter:

“Once you taste the Stanley Cup, you want it again,” Richards said. “Obviously, fitting in with Tampa wouldn’t be an issue because of my history here. In this salary-cap world, you have to be aware of each organization’s dynamics. Maybe you couldn’t get top dollar (in Tampa) that you might get somewhere else, but you consider other things.

“I’ve got friends and people I play golf with who constantly hammer me about coming back to Tampa. Even if I tried, I couldn’t get it out of my mind. So, yes, it’s there. I’d love to see it progress. But what’s going to happen? Who knows?”

It doesn’t sound like he’s terribly interested in taking a substantial pay cut, but would consider it if the right concessions were made by all involved.

Adding further confusion to the puzzle, is the situation of pending restricted free agent Steven Stamkos. While all parties are indicating that they want to get a deal done, Yzerman has admitted that to date he has only been playing phone tag with player agent Don Meehan. If Stamkos is interested in exploring other options, contrary to what he says, then that could open a door for Richards. Several things have to fall into place for Tampa to land Richards, but the possibility is definitely strong.

Toronto Maple Leafs (25%)

If signing Brad Richards comes down to money, the Toronto Maple Leafs can offer the most of it without having to worry about their cap situation. They have a solid ownership. Even though the team may be sold in the next little while, the sale is not an issue. Some sources have speculated the team could be sold for north of 2 billion dollars – hardly the financial drama that Brad has experienced in Dallas and Tampa. There is even the possibility to earn substantially more money beyond his salary through other means in Toronto. Even a moderate amount of success would land Brad massive advertising deals and various other revenue streams. The Maple Leafs need Brad Richards, and will do whatever they can to land him. Brian Burke has not made that a secret in the least.

However, the fame that could come with a career in Toronto could also be the biggest detriment to Burke’s attempt to sign Richards. There is little to indicate that Richards would prefer the fishbowl existence that can be the reality of the Toronto market. He’s always enjoyed his sun and sandals lifestyle with Dallas and Tampa. Richards would have to be front and center in Toronto – and he’d have to like it. Mike Ulmer writes on the Leafs official web page that Burke will be looking for someone that wants to bask in the glory of being a hockey hero in the mecca of the sport. Ulmer’s imagination of Burke’s pitch goes something like this:

“If you help get us into the playoffs, people will name their pets after you. If you help get us into the finals, they’ll be a lot of Bobbys in first grade five years later.

“I am offering the chance to know, 60 years before the fact, what the opening line of your obit will be.

“No more page four stories in the sports section. No more teachers asking what you do at your kid’s career fair.

“Mostly, I need to know whether you are a part-time hockey player.

I need a guy who doesn’t mind being a player 24 hours a day. You see this movie Thor? Yeah, I need that guy. Not Spiderman in those stupid tights worrying about his aunt and his girlfriend. Thor.

If Richards has the desire to be that kind of player, or if any part of him yearns for the spotlight, he will have that need fulfilled in Toronto. More than that, he can take comfort in knowing that while the Leafs may not be a Cup contender at this very moment, they have a man at the helm that knows how to get a team there. After having built a consistent division champion with Vancouver, a Stanley Cup champion in Anaheim, and the current President’s Trophy roster, there should be no doubt that the Leafs are headed in the right direction. There is also a potential 50 goal scorer in Kessel just waiting to accept Brad’s tape-to-tape passes, and make good on them.

So in closing, the Leafs offer Brad Richards money, fame, arguably the most reliable ownership and financial situation in the league, a solid young supporting cast and competent, proven management. Whether or not all of these aspects are appealing to him or not remains to be seen. This comment from Richards might be somewhat encouraging for Leaf fans though, as it appears he has at least considered the legacy aspect of this free agent decision:

“When you know you’re going on the market, you realize it could be one of the most important decisions of your life. It could be your last contract before you retire. You look at the intangible things, where you’d like to play, the places where you could win. So, there’s a lot going on in my mind right now.”

If Richards wants to make his last contract count, if he wants to leave a lasting impression on the National Hockey League, then Brian Burke and the Toronto Maple Leafs can make it happen. At this point, the Leafs seem to have a slight edge on Tampa Bay and the New York Rangers, but of course, things change quickly at this time of year. Stay tuned.

Look for Part 2 of this blog tomorrow where I will analyze a pair of teams in the hunt for Richards, and a pair of teams that could be considered dark horses to land his services.


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