Thursday, May 5, 2011

Free Agent Preview: Brad Richards Right Move For Rangers?

With the Rangers season over the next few months are spent looking back at how the team and individual players did during the 2010-11 season along with forward to next year.  In looking ahead to next season we go through looking at players on the roster to see who will/should be here and those who won’t/shouldn’t  remain with the organization.  However, for many the part they enjoy most about the offseason is looking forward to July 1 and thinking about which player from another team the Rangers will bring in this year.  There is no doubt or debate about who the top target for the Rangers is this offseason as Brad Richards is the top line center the team has been searching for and the clear cut best player available in an otherwise weak unrestricted free agent forward class.   Now is a good time to take a look at the pros and cons of signing Brad Richards and make a decision about whether he is in the best interest of the Rangers for both the short and long term.

Brad Richards instantly becomes the New York Rangers top line center and likely their best offensive player the instant he would put his signature on the contract.  He is one of the best playmakers in the game which he has exhibited by only having one season with less than 40 assists in his 10 year NHL career.  The Rangers leader in assists this season was Brandon Dubinsky with only 30.  Richards playmaking skill would be critical for the Rangers at even strength to get Marian Gaborik going, but just as much on the power play.  Gaborik is a sniper in the true sense of the term in that he is at his best when someone else can do the puck carrying for him and find him in the zone for the finish.  When he has to be the one to carry puck into the zone he tends to drift wide instead of attacking the scoring areas.

On the power play Richards would instantly give the Rangers a credible quarterback to run the man advantage.  The only thing this organization has been hunting for longer than a number one center is a power play quarterback.  It was that hunt that led to Wade Redden signing his atrocious deal and to the rushing of Michael Del Zotto to the NHL.  Del Zotto appeared to be primed to be the answer to the power play quarterback situation and still could be down the line, but is not ready for the role right now.  The other difference between Richards and Del Zotto is that Richards is a dual threat from the point in that he can use his vision and passing ability to find people, but also is willing to fire the shot when he has an opening.  Richards has played the point on the power play for much of his career and has never had a season with less than 19 power play points, while registering 7-22-29 on the man advantage this season.  Gaborik was actually the Rangers leader in power play points with 7-9-16 this year.

Many of the cons that concern the move for Brad Richards concern the money and length of his contract given the fact that he is now 31-years-old.  The Rangers have been burned by paying big contracts to players getting up there in years for a long time and are potentially out of the hole of all of them by the end of this summer if Chris Drury is bought out.  Does the organization want to go right back into the trap of paying another aging player huge money for a number of seasons and being right back against the salary cap wall. 

I have no doubt that Richards has at least one or two more years at the level of his last two seasons.  The question becomes what kind of player will he be in the remaining years of whatever deal he signs.  It would be hard for me to believe that unless he is willing to take less money or less term that someone will not at least offer him a contract for five plus seasons this summer given his stature and the dearth of alternatives out there.

Injuries have not really been a concern when it comes to Richards as he played 80+ games in each of his first six seasons, but has played 74, 56, 80, 72 in the last four years.  In the 56 game season the issue was with breaking his hand, so there is not much you can do with that, but having the concussion this past season that cost him 10 games has to be somewhat troublesome going forward.  Concussions are one of those things that once you have one significant enough to miss that much time it is much easier to get another that will not knock you out of action.

How to Make It Work:
Given the Rangers need to give contracts to Dubinsky, Callahan, Anisimov, Boyle, Sauer as restricted free agents and likely Ruslan Fedotenko as their lone unrestricted free agent to return some other money will have to disappear from the cap.  The much discussed buyout of Wojtek Wolski is an easy way to clear 3.3 million from the cap as would buying out Chris Drury.  The buyouts of those two would clear much of the required salary for Richards. 

Final Verdict:
What Richards brings to the Rangers in terms of stature, first line talent, aid for Gaborik and the power play is a compelling case for them to go after him.  It was painfully evident in the first round of the playoffs this year that this team needs more offensive stars if they want to be a legitimate contender down the road.  Richards has not only the ability to be one himself, but also make the other guys around him raise their level.  I would make the move for Richards if you can keep the term length on the deal short as three years is a reasonable length to expect him to still be producing at quality levels.  Anything longer than that and it turns into a Scott Gomez/Chris Drury situation where you are paying for past performance and watching an aging player eat through your cap with declining results.  If Sather can get Richards for 3/22 or less then he should pull the trigger on the deal.  Anything longer in years or higher in dollars is not worth the price despite how good Richards can be and how desperately the Rangers need a number one pivot.