Brad Richards heads slim NHL free-agent class

How’s this for a change of pace? While the NFL and NBA are

embroiled in labor disputes that threaten their upcoming seasons,

NHL clubs are gearing up to spend more money on salaries than they

have since a lockout canceled a full campaign six years ago.

Harmony exists in hockey – at least for one more season – and

the 30 teams will be living with a salary cap that is at its

highest level since it was created. They can start shopping Friday

when the free-agent season kicks off.

While not everyone will spend up to the $64.3 million cap, a

$4.9 million increase over last season, each club will have to

reach the minimum payroll of $48.3 million. That figure is $9.3

million higher than the original ceiling established after the

season-long lockout in 2005.

”Lots of teams have lots of money to spend because the cap went

up, which meant the floor went up,” Washington Capitals general

manager George McPhee said. ”Teams with money are going to have to

spend, and the teams trying to get to the floor are going to have

to spend. So somebody is going to spend too much money on free

agents and I’m glad it’s not going to be us, because we’re in

pretty good shape at this point.”

Dallas Stars center Brad Richards appears to be the rare gem in

a free-agent class that contains many familiar names, but not a lot

of elite talent.

The New York Rangers have long coveted Richards, who would give

them the playmaking center they have been searching for and someone

to quarterback an often stagnant power play. His familiarity with

Rangers coach John Tortorella, who coached Richards when they won

the Stanley Cup together with the Tampa Bay Lightning, makes this

appear to be a natural fit if New York can meet Richards’ contract

demands and squeeze him under what is still a crowded cap for

them.

The Rangers made some room Wednesday when they bought out the

final year of captain Chris Drury’s contract, cutting ties with one

of the centers who never quite filled their needs.

”I love the guy, but we still have to make a decision we feel

is best for the hockey club,” Tortorella said.

Philadelphia could also be in the mix one week after the Flyers

shipped out star forwards Mike Richards (Los Angeles) and Jeff

Carter (Columbus) in a reshaping of the club that also freed up cap

space.

Team chairman Ed Snider said he hopes Philadelphia is done with

big moves for now, but there was some buzz that the Flyers could

take a run at restricted free agent Steven Stamkos, who has

combined for 96 goals the past two seasons with the Lightning. The

Flyers appeared to refute those rumors when they released a

statement Thursday night saying they wouldn’t being pursuing

restricted free agents.

Richards could also possibly land back in Tampa Bay or could

look to strike it rich with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Once he finds a new home, the rest of the pieces could fall into

place.

The Lightning already addressed one need by agreeing to terms on

a one-year deal with 41-year-old goalie Dwayne Roloson. Roloson was

a key player in Tampa Bay’s surprising run to the Eastern

Conference finals after he was acquired from the Islanders on Jan.

1.

”I don’t think there are a lot of stars that are free agents,”

Red Wings general manager Ken Holland said. ”But I think there are

some players out there who can help.”

One of those is former scoring champion Jaromir Jagr, who is

looking to return to the NHL after spending three seasons in

Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League following a stint with the

Rangers.

The Pittsburgh Penguins, Jagr’s first NHL team, are waiting to

hear about an offer they made. The Red Wings and Montreal Canadiens

are also known to be interested.

The 39-year-old Jagr teamed with Mario Lemieux on Penguins teams

that won the Stanley Cup in 1991 and 1992. Pittsburgh offered him a

one-year deal that could mark the end of his career.

In 17 NHL seasons with the Penguins, Capitals and Rangers, Jagr

has 646 goals and 1,599 career points. He was the NHL MVP in 1999,

a finalist five other times, and an eight-time All-Star.

The free-agent defensemen class got a bit of a head start as

Andrei Markov decided not to test the market, and instead re-upped

with the Canadiens on a three-year, $17.25 million deal.

Kevin Bieksa is also staying put, re-signing with the Western

Conference champion Vancouver Canucks for five years and $23

million. The Canucks also re-signed defenseman Andrew Alberts to a

two-year, $2.45 million deal.

That was only the start of the Canucks’ free-agent issues.

Vancouver was also trying to work out deals with defenseman Sami

Salo, after giving up on bringing back fellow defenseman Christian

Ehrhoff. The Canucks shipped Ehrhoff’s negotiating rights to the

New York Islanders, but New York also hit a wall in trying to ink a

deal with him so the Islanders sent Ehrhoff’s rights to Buffalo on

Wednesday, one day after they got them. Ehrhoff was traded for a

fourth-round draft pick each time.

Buffalo had much more success. Terry Pegula, preparing for his

first full season as Sabres owner, has given general manager Darcy

Regier the go-ahead to spend freely. After acquiring defenseman

Robyn Regehr and forward Ales Kotalik from Calgary at last

weekend’s draft, Regier bolstered the blue line again by striking a

deal with Ehrhoff.

The Sabres agreed to terms Thursday with Ehrhoff on a 10-year,

$40 million deal, a person familiar with the negotiations told The

Associated Press on the condition of anonymity because the details

weren’t released by the team.

”We hope to be active. We’d like to add both a forward and

defenseman, but we’ll have to see how it goes,” Regier said

earlier this week. ”You have to give Terry a tremendous amount of

credit because he’s opened up the ability for us to focus on

unrestricted free agents and given us the resources.

”We’re in competition for what really is a pretty small group

of players. It’s a small list this year.”

One defenseman who won’t be returning to Buffalo is Steve

Montador, whose rights were traded to the Chicago Blackhawks for a

seventh-round draft pick next year or in 2013. The move paid off

for the Blackhawks, who agreed on a four-year contract with

Montador on Thursday.

The Canadiens sent the rights to defenseman James Wisniewski to

Columbus for a seventh-round pick.

In other moves Thursday, the Carolina Hurricanes re-signed

forward Jussi Jokinen to a three-year contract worth $9 million,

and the St. Louis Blues kept 24-year-old forward T.J. Oshie away

from restricted free agency, agreeing to a one-year, $2.35 million

deal.

San Jose reached one-year deals with potential restricted free

agent forwards Jamie McGinn and Frazer McLaren.

The Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins will let defenseman Tomas

Kaberle, acquired midseason from Toronto, and forward Michael Ryder

test the market. However, general manager Peter Chiarelli hasn’t

given up on bringing them back to Boston.

”We certainly haven’t parted ways,” Chiarelli said Thursday

during a conference call. ”I’m wary of the market, where it stands

right now and I said, ‘Look guys go out there and see what’s going

on and let’s continue to talk.’ The risk that we run is that they

will get a deal, then they can’t come back to us. I understand that

risk.”

Because of the limited amount of star power, clubs will try to

make deals to get better without spending unwisely. One rogue

contract could throw the pay scale out of whack.

”It’s a difficult market to work in, and you worry about where

it’s going and you get competitive to beat out the other team, and

you beat out the other team and then you say, ‘Why did we do

that?”’ said McPhee, who re-signed forward Brooks Laich with a

six-year, $27 million contract. ”We’d rather make trades and that

sort of thing instead of going heavy in free agency.”

AP Sports Writers John Wawrow, Joseph White, Larry Lage and

Jimmy Golen contributed to this report.