While there is no guarantee that Dallas Stars forward Brad Richards will hit the free agent market, there is no denying that if/when Richards does hit the free agent market the competition for his services will be fast and furious.
Through 56 games with the Dallas Stars, Richards has registered a total of 24 goals and 63 points, good enough for seventh overall in the scoring race and enough to make Richards a very rich man this summer.
Unlike many NHL stars that are one-dimensional, Richards brings a unique combination of playmaking ability, goal scoring, defensive prowess and character. Richards ranks 15th in goals (24), fifth in assists, 24th in power play goals, 10th in shots (215) and a faceoff percentage that ranks him 41st in the league at a 51.4 percent success rate.
Clearly, when it comes to this summer's unrestricted free agents Richards has the potential to be the most coveted free agent since Ilya Kovalchuk hit the market last summer, which is to say, there will be plenty of competition for his services.
The team that everyone expects to be the most aggressive with regards to Richards is the Toronto Maple Leafs who are dying for a top-notch centre to play alongside sniper Phil Kessel.
A duo of Richards and Kessel would be a dream combination for Maple Leafs fans and, on the surface, may emerge as one of the league's best.
The Maple Leafs will emerge from the 2010-11 season with a ton of cap space. As it stands right now, the Maple Leafs have a total of $35,170,000 committed to 12 players for the 2011-12 season. This leaves Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke with approximately $24,230,000 with which to fill out his roster.
Restricted free agent Luke Schenn is expected to command upwards of $4 million per season, while fellow RFAs Tyler Bozak, Carl Gunnarsson and Clarke MacArthur will also need new deals.
MacArthur is expected to command a deal in the $2-$2.5 million range, while Gunnarsson (currently carrying a cap hit of $800,000) and Bozak (currently carrying a cap hit of $3,725,000) should net around $3 million per season between them.
If Burke manages to re-sign all four of Schenn, Bozak, MacArthur and Gunnarsson it should cost him in the neighborhood of $9 million, which would leave him with approximately $15 million with which to go free agent shopping.
With James Reimer emerging as a strong candidate to be the teams starter for the 2011-12 season, there does not seem to be the need for a big-money goalie to be signed.
Reimer is a RFA this summer, so Burke will have to re-sign the talented youngster to a new deal, which will probably be similar to Jonas “The Monster” Gustavsson’s $1,350,000 contract.
If Gustavsson emerges as the Maple Leafs’ backup out of training camp, so be it. If not, Burke will set his sights on a depth goalie, preferably one that will sign in the $1.5 million range.
The well-travelled Ty Conklin could make a good backup, as could the likes of Jose Theodore or Johan Hedburg—all of whom should fit into that $1.5 million range, all of whom are willing to play second fiddle to the starter.
Either way, Burke should start the 2011-12 season with two cost-effective goaltenders, which will free up money to be spent on other key players—preferably a centre and a puck-moving defenseman.
With the news coming Friday afternoon that Tomas Kaberle has been traded to the Boston Bruins for prospect Joe Colborne (a “pass-first” centre), Boston’s first-round draft choice at the upcoming 2011 NHL Entry Draft and a conditional draft choice in 2012 that may be as high as a second rounder, it appears as if Kaberle will not be back in 2011-12.
Sure, Burke may try to re-sign Kaberle this summer, but if he fails to do so, Burke will have to find an adequate replacement for the talented puck mover.
Puck moving defensemen do not come cheap, so look for Burke to allocate somewhere in the neighborhood $3.5-$4 million for a premium puck mover/power play specialist.
A player of this ilk will not be easy to find. Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Joni Pitkanen (27 years old, 25 points through 48 games) is a UFA this summer, as are Vancouver Canucks’ defensemen Kevin Bieska (29 years old, 19 points through 55 games) and Christian Ehrhoff (28 years old, 33 points through 53 games).
All four would look great in the Blue and White, but will any of them be willing to sign in Toronto, and will any of them sign in the $3.5-$4 million range?
If those signings go as planned, Brian Burke’s lineup should look something like this:
Joffrey Lupul, Brad Richards, Phil Kessel
Clarke MacArhur, Mikhail Grabovski, Nikolai Kulemin
Colby Armstrong, Tyler Bozak, Joey Crabb
Colton Orr, Tim Brent, Mike Brown
***Nazem Kadri, Joe Colborne
Dion Phaneuf, Keith Aulie
Luke Schenn, TBD
Carl Gunnarsson, Mike Komisarek
***Brett Lebda, Jake Gardiner
(Highlighted players are in need of a new contract, are yet to be signed or unlikely to play for the Maple Leafs in 2011-12.)
This leaves Burke with about $10 million with which to sign a couple of third and fourth line players (perhaps Joey Crabb and Tim Brent) or another prospect via the Maple Leafs’ AHL affiliate, Toronto Marlies.
Brent and Crabb would command little money between them, perhaps as little as $1.2-$1.5 million, which is on par with other third and fourth line players in today’s NHL.
Other options for third and fourth line duty include Christian Hanson (RFA), Luca Caputi (RFA) and Nazem Kadri (who may emerge as trade bait) and, of course, the newly acquired Joe Colborne, who carries a cap hit of $1.1 million.
Kadri will carry a cap hit of $1,720,000 so if he intends on making the team he will have to impress if he wants to crack Burke’s lineup.
What is Burkes number one priority this off-season?
That leaves Burke with about $8 million to go after Richards, and it might just take every penny to get the talented centre to sign on the dotted line.
Richards is currently on the fifth year of a $39 million contract which sees him carry a cap hit of $7.8 million per season.
While the economics of the NHL have changed dramatically since Richards first signed that five-year deal, it is estimated that Richards will be looking for a deal of similar monies and term this time around.
Word on the street has the salary cap increasing by as much as $4 million next season, which would supply Burke with all the wiggle room he needs to fill out his roster (perhaps with a Scottie Upshall or Brooks Laich joining the club instead of Joey Crabb or Tim Brent) and make the Richards deal work.
If Burke was to sign Richards to a five-year, $40 million deal he would have $28,650,000 wrapped up in five players (Phil Kessel, Brad Richards, Dion Phaneuf, Mike Komisarek and Joffrey Lupul).
That’s a lot of cash wrapped up in five guys, but money is something the Maple Leafs organization has never been short of, so the Leafs Nation won’t be losing any sleep over it!
The bottom line is this: If Burke wants to make a run at Richards he will have the monies and the resources to do so.
Whether Richards chooses to hit the free agent market and/or signs with the Maple Leafs? Well, that’s the $40 million question, isn’t it?
For my thoughts on which player/s will replace Kaberle, click HERE.
For my thoughts on which players Burke will go after in the offseason, click HERE.
Until next time,