First off, I will admit that I have one foot firmly on both sides of the Brad Richards debate. There are definite pros to the Leafs making a serious pitch for the unrestricted free agent, but the cons have to be looked at as well.
Brian Burke has stated that he is planning on solving the top-line centre problem in Toronto via free agency because "you get the player for free. All it costs you is salary. You don't give up any assets, you don't give up any players or picks. Prior to July 1, you've got to pledge assets."
While true on the surface, this is a very shallow analysis—especially coming from a GM who should be regretting the signing of Mike Komisarek at $4.5 million per season.
With that, I will now play devil's advocate and provide six reasons that the Leafs should not go after Brad Richards.
This slide isn't about angering Hab fans, but I have to ask: Am I the only one that remembers Scott Gomez?
Just to remind you: Gomez's cap hit is a horrid $7.35 million per year, a cap hit that his 38 points (7 goals, 31 assists) doesn't even come close to justifying. I know that he brings some intangibles to the team (veteran leadership), but imagine what the Habs could do without his contract on their hands.
Gomez was once a highly sought after free agent. His high salary and cap hit came as a result.
Brad Richards is likely to command just as high of a cap hit, if not more. Richards is also already 31, while Gomez signed his contract at 27.
With a young team expected to get a lot of raises in the next few years (with notable free agents Nikolai Kulemin and Mikhail Grabovski coming up in 2012), a contract like the one Richards is going to get could handcuff the Leafs and hurt them in the long run.
If the last two years have taught us anything, it is that top players are signing long contracts so that a) they are guaranteed money for the rest of their careers and b) the team can lower the cap hit with front-loaded deals.
Brad Richards will be in the market for a contract that will take him until he retires, which could end up being seven or eight years from now.
This point goes hand-in-hand with the cap hit—until what age will Richards be an effective number one centreman?
It is known that the Leafs ownership group doesn't mind about actual salary—they would all be for front-loading a deal—but this would result in the kind of contract length that would hurt the team in the long run.
And we all know how Burke has preached about the short and long run of the Leafs.
Against all odds, it wasn't until the departure of both Francois Beauchemin and Tomas Kaberle that the Leafs really hit their stride this season. This was largely attributed to Dion Phaneuf finally becoming the leader on the team, and helping mold the young core to his liking.
It is indisputable that Brad Richards would bring a major form of veteran leadership to the Leafs—mostly seen as a positive thing—but doing so could rub Dion the wrong way. The Flyers are a great example of this: there have been rumoured issues between young captain Mike Richards and veteran Chris Pronger.
There were also rumoured locker room problems with Phaneuf and Jarome Iginla in Calgary, and while they might not be true, why risk it?
There is a subtle hint of hope in Leafland, mostly due to the major youth movement occurring. The Muskoka Five have all been shipped out, and in their place are young players that are going to be contributors to an eventual playoff run.
With an average age of approximately 26, the Leafs are one of the youngest teams in the league. Surprisingly (or not so much, depending on how you look at it), the younger the team gets, the better it becomes (the prime example being the emergence of Keith Aulie in place of Francois Beauchemin).
The success seems to have stemmed from a relationship between all the young players.
While adding one player like Brad Richards doesn't end the youth movement, it will certainly have an effect on the culture in the locker room. It is possible that it won't all be positive.
While there have been some questionable moves along the way, Brian Burke has done an effective job of restocking the cupboard with solid signings of undrafted players, great drafting, and trades.
In doing so, he has packed the Leafs with prospects that could potentially fill the top six in the near future. Nazem Kadri and Joe Colborne top the list, with high risers like Matt Frattin and Greg McKegg impressing in their respective junior leagues.
If Richards signs a long-term contract, where do all of these players fit in the lineup when they are ready? Some openings may come with the possible departure of Mikhail Grabovski and Joffrey Lupul in the next couple years, but beyond that, it seems unlikely that there will be space.
Burke has preached the importance of a distinct top-six and bottom-six forward group, which, in the long run, doesn't fit with the signing of Brad Richards.
The issue here doesn't so much lie with the concussion Richards previously sustained (he finished the season with a six-game point streak), but what will happen if Richards gets hit in the head again.
Richards doesn't have a history of concussion problems, but that doesn't mean he won't develop issues in the future.
Sidney Crosby, Eric Lindros and Marc Savard are all evidence of what can happen.