Brad Richards heads slim NHL free-agent class

BY foxsports • July 1, 2011

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.