Oh, those New York Rangers. It wouldn’t be NHL free agency unless the Blueshirts used big money to lure a big prize to the Big Apple, where people will expect the new headliner to star but will wait for him to wilt under the bright lights on Broadway.
This time it's center Brad Richards(notes) – for nine years and $60 million, according to reports – and you can't help but think of all the big-time busts of the past. Flashback just to July 1, 2007: The Rangers signed free-agent centers Scott Gomez(notes) and Chris Drury(notes). Gomez – seven years, $51.5 million – lasted two seasons before he was shipped to the Montreal Canadiens. Drury – five years, $35.25 million – was bought out just this week.
Only this time it's not so crazy. At least in relative terms. The league has spiraled so deep into insanity that the Rangers seem almost sensible here.
God love Terry Pegula, the Buffalo Sabres' new billionaire owner, who is buying players for a team that couldn't afford players before. But 10 years and $40 million for defenseman Christian Ehrhoff(notes), who went minus-13 in the playoffs for the Vancouver Canucks? And six years and $27 million for winger Ville Leino(notes), who had one 21-point playoff and one 19-goal regular season for the Philadelphia Flyers?
The real madness is not in Manhattan, but in upstate New York and other places where above-average players are being paid like stars. If you're going to overpay for someone, you might as well overpay for the best player available in the market if he fits your team, even if he isn't one of the very best players in the league. Richards was the best player available in this market by far and fits the Rangers pretty much perfectly, especially because he once won the Stanley Cup under coach John Tortorella with the Tampa Bay Lightning and has a strong relationship with him.
Richards is not Sidney Crosby(notes) or Alex Ovechkin(notes). He is not the face of the NHL or a perennial candidate for an MVP award or a scoring title. Having spent his entire career with the Lightning and Dallas Stars, he has never played under the white-hot spotlight that is about to glare down on him in New York.
He is 31 and has a concussion history, and the issue with this contract is the term. TSN reported the deal is heavily front-loaded with $20 million due in the first 12 months and only $3 million to be paid over the last three years. That means this is actually a six-year, $57 million deal with three bogus...I mean, bonus years at the end.
Stretching it to nine years kept the cap hit at $6.67 million. That's palatable now. But this deal does not make the Rangers immediate Stanley Cup contenders, and what if the cap goes down after the collective bargaining agreement expires in September 2012 and a new CBA is signed? What if his play declines? How will this look in Year 2, let alone in Year 7 or Year 8 or Year 9?
That said, the Rangers desperately needed a No. 1 center, and there were no other bona fide No. 1 centers on the market. There were no other bona fide stars on the market at any position. Few have reached the market since the current CBA was signed in 2005, ushering in a salary cap and lowering the age for unrestricted free agency from 31 to 27. Teams have locked up their core pieces long-term. The only reason Richards was on the market was that the Stars couldn't lock him up because of ownership uncertainty.
Richards won that Cup with Tampa Bay in 2004, plus the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs' most valuable player and the Lady Byng Trophy for gentlemanly conduct combined with a high standard of playing ability. In other words, he has won before, has come up big in the biggest moments and carries himself the right way. Former Stars coach Marc Crawford compared him to former Colorado Avalanche captain Joe Sakic(notes) for his meticulous preparation, offensive creativity and professionalism. If he doesn’t perform or his performance declines in the future, it likely won't be for lack of effort.
No wonder offers were pouring in from all over the league, with teams sending delegations to his agent's office near Toronto as soon as the market opened Friday. The Rangers reportedly had to raise their offer to outbid the Los Angeles Kings, but Richards accepted less than he could have gotten from the Calgary Flames or Toronto Maple Leafs. Yes, others were willing to pay more.
Had Richards gone to L.A., he might have upset the balance of power in the West, joining a team that includes Anze Kopitar(notes), Mike Richards(notes) and Drew Doughty(notes). Going to Calgary and Toronto wouldn't have had the same impact. Going to New York doesn't, either, because the Rangers still have too many holes to fill and too much developing to do. But it puts Richards in the situation he wanted and makes the Rangers better.
Richards will have stable ownership and an energized arena. How much of a chance to win he'll really have remains to be seen, but some of it will be up to him.
His playmaking skills can help maximize the value of right winger Marian Gaborik(notes), the free-agent sniper the Rangers signed in 2009 for five years and $37.5 million. In his first season, Gaborik lived up to the billing with 42 goals. This season, not so much – 22 goals.
Richards can enliven what has been a stagnant power play. That might give the Rangers enough offensive pop to take another step in front of a shot-blocking defense and top-notch goaltender Henrik Lundqvist(notes).
The Rangers have built an identity with a young core, led by Ryan Callahan(notes) and Marc Staal(notes) – the most likely candidates to become captain after Drury's departure. Richards won't upset that; he'll help it as a mentor. He could wear the ‘C’ but doesn't need it to set an example. Tortorella is a demanding coach. Don't underestimate the value in Tortorella loving a star player and that player loving him back. That's got to be hard to find.
Is it worth $60 million?
In this market, with options limited and prices high? Yeah. This season, when the Rangers are trying to become more than a playoff-bubble team? Sure.
In Year 7 and Year 8 and Year 9, when Richards is pushing 40? If this works out and the Rangers win a Cup along the way, of course. And if not, well, Tortorella and general manager Glen Sather will be long gone by then, won't they?