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Brad Richards’ future and the realities in Tampa Bay

You might have caught the Kukla’s Korner report last night, but in case you didn’t, Paul shared a bit of news via Steve Simmons and the Toronto Sun about the future of Dallas Stars center Brad Richards, who is an unrestricted free agent after the season. His future in Dallas has been in question for a while because of the Stars ownership woes.

The Simmons column gives an indication of where Brad wants to be:

The free agent to-be has told an old Tampa source that he has no real interest in playing in Toronto, if he, in fact, becomes a free agent come July. Richards’ first choice is to remain in Dallas, assuming the team gets sold and can afford to sign him. His second and third choice, not necessarily in order, would be returning to Tampa (which doesn’t seem possible economically) or playing for his old coach, John Tortorella, with the New York Rangers. He has also hinted about having some interest regarding playing in Carolina.

When asked about Toronto, he apparently said nothing but shook his head.

It’s no secret that a contingent of Lightning fans would like nothing more than to have the Bradmaster back in the fold with the Lightning.  To this day I lament the loss of Richards in the deadline deal that sent him to Dallas.  But how much of a chance that has of happening is realistically slim with the salary cap space the team has to work with.

Steven Stamkos is about to receive a lump sum contract extension, and Victor Hedman will be approaching restricted free agency in a year’s time. Factor in Mike Lundin and Teddy Purcell as other key RFA’s to be re-signed in the 2011 off-season, and the Lightning’s current $9 million in cap space becomes significantly less before addressing unrestricted free agents like Sean Bergenheim, Adam Hall, Marc-Andre Bergeron, and Dwayne Roloson (that’s a topic all unto itself for another day). Oh, and Simon Gagne.

Letting Gagne(and his $5.25 million contract) walk would likely be the only way the Bolts could afford Richards (taking a home-town discount to begin with).  The acquisition – if it were to happen – would still result in Brad playing out of position more times than not.

But it gets intriguing, when you think about it.  Guy Boucher does not approach forwards in the conventional light that we all know it.  Having Richards, a center, available at wing or at center on any given line gives another threat to the team (both on the scoresheet and in the faceoff circle where he is winning 51.4% of his faceoffs this season).

But is Richards playing the wing really realistic?  He hasn’t played full-time on the wing since his playing days in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League with Rimouski Oceanic.

Of course, he was paired with his friend Vincent Lecavalier, and the duo was described as “fingers on the same hand” by former head coach Doris Labonte during a July 2000 interview with Hockey’s Future. One could also factor in his past success with RW Marty St. Louis (most recently his 2011 NHL All-Star game successes on a line with St. Louis and Steven Stamkos) and you see there is a reason to have Richards back in the fold.

But again, let’s go back to reality:  The Bolts, at the time of Richards departure in 2008, were routinely described as “top-heavy” with regard to talent on the team (and percentage of the salary cap spent on three players).  While Richards, Lecavalier and St. Louis made up a trio of offensive stars, the lower lines suffered due to lack-of-investment by the team.  The team also struggled to spend on goaltending talent in free agency.

One could make an argument as well that it was the re-signing St. Louis and Lecavalier in August 2005 that prevented the Bolts from retaining goalie Nikolai Khabibulin (well, that and Khabibulin’s contract demands).

Rumors from August 2005 and forward, always cited the Lightning goalie situation and the team’s inability to afford Richards, Lecavalier and St. Louis as the reason why one (or more) of the three would be dealt.

Flash forward to 2011.  Now it’s affording Stamkos and other talent on top of Lecavalier and St. Louis. It’s just not practical to think that Brad will be a Bolt again anytime soon (…unless he takes substantially less than he’s worth).

Speaking more on the Simmons report, if unable to re-sign with Dallas, Richards joining John Tortorella in New York makes sense.  Torts knows what Brad is capable of and Brad knows the demands of his former head coach.  You have to wonder how Richards would survive in the tri-state area media market though.

And while Carolina Hurricanes would probably be fitting for Richards, with less constant media pressure than New York, I’d personally hate to see Richards on an opposing team six times a season. Richards joining one of the other Southeast Division teams is probably theabsolute worst-case-scenario (from a competitive standpoint) for the Lightning.

Don’t get too swept up in nostalgia with the hope Brad Richards comes back to Tampa Bay.  Reality says that it just doesn’t work from a financial and roster management standpoint, and that Richards can be afforded so much more in other markets (either financially or with competitive opportunity).

But you can dream, hope, and keep wishfully-thinking that the 2004 Conn Smythe winner would come back to the team he found Stanley Cup Championship glory with.

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