Sunday, July 3, 2011

Can Richards conquer New York???

Can Brad Richards deliver Lord Stanley back on Broadway?

When the madness finally ended, as usual the Rangers had their man- agreeing to another front-loaded long-term deal with primary target Brad Richards over Fourth Of July weekend. The fireworks got started early with as many as five suitors after the marquee name in a weak Free Agent class in which classic overpayment and flat out insanity ruled Day One. It wasn't an easy decision for the former Star, who after careful consideration waited until Day Two to announce that he chose the Rangers over runner-ups, the Leafs and Kings while his ex-team the Lightning and Sabres dropped out completely.

Mission accomplished for smoking gun, Team President and GM Glen Sather, who had the pull of Richards' Cup winning coach John Tortorella at his arsenal along with '94 hero Mark Messier and captain in waiting Ryan Callahan, who coincidentally both Richy Rich and new enforcer Mike Rupp heaped praise on. That along with an up to date state of the art Madison Square Garden, were enough to finally sway the new No.1 center, who also even talked to self-proclaimed 'geniu$' Jim Dolan Friday night before sleeping on the nine-year, $60 million offer that got it done. Yes. Nine Years folks, when the Blueshirts swore they wouldn't be drawn into a bidding war for the former '04 Conn Smythe winner. Like we didn't see that coming.

Listen. I'm not going to sit here and tell Garden Faithful that Richards doesn't help our team. Oh. His skill was badly needed for an Original Six franchise that's won only two rounds since a bitter Messier bolted for greener pastures following an unexpected run to the Conference Finals in '97. No doubt that Richy Rich addresses two needs, supplying the Rangers with the first line pivot they have lacked since Eric Lindros had his bell rung in San Jose circa '01-02. There's also the issue of the powerless play, which at long last gets an experienced power play quarterback who can thread the needle and act as a double threat from the point. It was a no-brainer to spend Dolan cash on the caliber of player who's been nearly a point-per-game (772 GP: 220-496-716) for his entire career- spanning a decade from almost seven years spent in St. Pete as one third of a dynamic trio (Lecavalier/St. Louis) that led a Tortorella coached team to Lord Stanley, to over three years spent in Dallas as a superb Star, who outside of a nice '08 run as a deadline pickup (3-12-15 in 18 GP) never was able to get them back to the postseason.

It can be argued that aside from an unstable ownership situation in Big D, Richards played in a tougher conference that included the hardest division in the sport, the Pacific. While the Stars certainly were good enough to make the cut in the East in which oddly enough they would've beaten out his new team, their 95 points went for naught- keeping one of the brightest players on the golf course a third straight Spring. No wonder he spurned an even better offer from shot in the dark Calgary, reported to be worth $63 M over nine years. Once it was leaked the other night, both the Bolts and new look Sabres were out, whittling it down to three. The Flyers were also said to have interest but Paul Holmgren instead duped Mario Lemieux by snagging Jaromir Jagr (3.3 M) and Max Talbot, infuriating Pens fans, which should only intensify the Pennsylvania rivalry. Last summer's Kovalchuk runner-up, LA dialed in on acquiring the other Richards after adding ex-Flyer Mike Richards to a strong club that features Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, unsigned restricted Drew Doughty, Jack Johnson and goalie tandem Jon Quick/Jonathan Bernier. LA's pitch included taped messages from Wayne Gretzky and Kobe Bryant.

Despite a better roster closer to competing, Richy Rich chose the spotlight on Broadway. He wanted New York, even if it took an insane deal to secure him. Sure. The cap hit ($6.67 M) pales in comparison to ex-Blueshirts Scott Gomez and Chris Drury, who finally agreed to a buyout. Nobody disputes that the new Rich Kid is a better player than either, who fits the criteria Marian Gaborik needs to just focus on lighting the lamp. Even with that finally addressed, the club still lacks a complementary left wing unless they're willing to break up the unsigned Draft Line (Dubinsky-Anisimov-Callahan), who now become priority along with Brian Boyle and Mike Sauer. Slats also brought back Ruslan Fedotenko ($1.4 M) for a year. I'm on record as being against breaking up our cohesive second unit that was the club's best last season. Even if it means re-signing Vinny Prospal on the cheap or dare I say plugging Richards' 'buddy' Sean Avery, I'd prefer that instead, allowing Derek Stepan to remain our third center with Boyle better suited for the fourth line.

A glance at the remaining LW FA's doesn't leave much to be desired with Sather indicating he won't go that route, perhaps hinting at a trade. Might he use a couple of our blueline chips (Del Zotto, Kundratek, Valentenko) to further upgrade? Unless a kid like Christian Thomas overwhelms in camp, figure the roster to be locked in with much at stake for Avery, Erik Christensen and Mats Zuccarello. Figure they'll buyout Wojtek Wolski next month to clear more space. That aside, Sather has to decide on replacing Steve Eminger, who was quite serviceable as an extra D. Possible candidates could be Brent Sopel, Steve Staios, Shane O'Brien, power play bomber Anton Babchuk or even Radek Martinek, who wouldn't be the worst choice if he doesn't bolt for overseas. I'm a fan of Sopel, who has a Cup with Chicago and is the kinda vet who knows what it takes. Of the others, I've always liked O'Brien, who brings character to whatever roster he's on. Deadline bust Bryan McCabe won't be back. So, if they want to add one more cannon, Babchuk certainly qualifies. It shouldn't cost more than $2 million with the Wings stealing Ian White for a reasonable price (2.875 M over 2 yrs).

The first order of business is getting Callahan/Dubinsky done. One of my main gripes with management is they always put mercenarie$ over our core. While I get why because it's Slats' main objective to add through free agency, Cally and Dubi are musts. It's hard to gauge what they'll get with outlandish deals such as Joel Ward (4 yrs, 12 M) while Jussi Jokinen took a team discount (3 yrs, 9 M) to stay in Carolina. My guess is somewhere between that- probably right smack in the middle if each is reasonable. Figure Dubinsky to be harder to sign after leading us in scoring with Callahan actually with better production. If you polled most Ranger fans, they'd lean towards Cally as being more valuable even if Dubi possesses more skill. I just hope he's not unreasonable. On breakup day, he said he wants the Rangers. Prove it.

Whenever you commit long-term for a talented player like Richards, it ups the ante. Since Jagr left in '08, our team has advanced to Round Two once while missing the playoffs in '09-10. Two of three years and five of the last six since the lockout isn't bad. Even teams like the Sharks, Flyers and Devils have missed the postseason. Once unheard of. It sheds new light on how much tougher it is to stay competitive with so many Blackhawks more separated than the five lions that formed Voltron. While Dale Tallon tries to change his team to Hawks South just to get up to the $48 M floor with the Avs and Islanders also in that category, teams like ours never have to worry about that. But rather how well Richards and Gaborik will mesh. When Gomez joined forces with Jagr, it was like the Broadway version of The Odd Couple. Their styles were polar opposites, which is why not always paying top dollar works. Richy Rich is different because he's played for Tortorella before and is more of a facilitator while Gabby is just better at finishing. One of the reasons it didn't work in Year Two was because teams keyed on Gaborik, forcing him to the perimeter. He's soft. That won't change with this move. However, he'll no longer be asked to carry the puck up the ice and also score. His job becomes easier.

One of the reasons Richards chose the Rangers is our nucleus, which reminds him of what he and Tort did in Tampa. A nice compliment considering our talent pales in comparison. We don't boast a St. Louis or Lecavalier. Not even a Dan Boyle, who was so underrated until he was dumped to San Jose. Even a younger Pavel Kubina would be on our top pair with apologies to Staal/Girardi who are solid but expected to do too much. I still feel this team lacks a true No.1. By that, I mean a guy who can log the big minutes and do it all. Staal is good. Not great as Joe Micheletti would have you believe. He's better suited as a shutdown D than having to focus on contributing offensively, where our former '05 first rounder still has trouble pinching. If they had a Shea Weber or Doughty, we're talking a whole new ballgame. Maybe the Tim Erixon gamble pays off. It's still a lot of pressure on the Swedish kid who also must be signed, entering his rookie year. With Staal, Girardi, Ryan McDonagh and Sauer, this is still a very young blueline. How fast will they push Erixon? Is Del Zotto still part of the solution? What about Valentenko, Kundratek, former #1 Dylan McIlrath or even Mikhail Pashnin? Our team can definitely use help.

Can Richards conquer New York? I have a great deal of respect for the kind of caliber player he is both on and off the ice. He wants to win and obviously loves the challenge. Is he up for it? This is a guy who never had to deal with some of the distractions he will in our city. I don't see that being an issue. It's all about chemistry and how quick he adjusts. Encouraging is he starred in the East most of his career. It's not as physically taxing as the West. The travel should be better once our team survives the crazy European/Western Canadian start. Due to the renovation, the Rangers won't return to Manhattan until October 27 when the new look Leafs visit featuring pseudo No.1's Stephen Weiss and Tim Connolly. Following a seven-game trip with even a stop at the rival Islanders, the Blueshirts play seven of eight at MSG, including a six-game homestand also featuring the Sens, Sharks, Ducks, Habs and Jets. It'll be a great chance for Richy Rich to win over a majority who wanted him but never envisioned nine years. How they adapt on the long road along with this pivotal stretch should go a long way to deciding what kind of debut season he and the club will have.

As for the breakdown of another CBA headache that looms down the road, here's the particulars courtesy of Cap Geek:

Year        Salary     Signing Bonus   Cap Hit
'11-12    $12 M     10 M               $6.67 M
'12-13     12 M       8 M                  6.67 M
'13-14       9 M       2 M                  6.67 M
'14-15       8.5 M    2 M                  6.67 M
'15-16       8.5 M    2 M                  6.67 M
'16-17       7 M       4 M                  6.67 M
'17-18       1 M        0                     6.67 M
'18-19       1 M        0                     6.67 M
'19-20       1 M        0                     6.67 M

It doesn't take a genius to figure out what they did, with Richards set to earn $24 million of the 60 the first two years before the salary gradually decreases, leaving his final potential three seasons at $1 M apiece. Just your classic front-loaded contract that the league will look the other way on even though this along with Ehrhoff and Ilya Bryzgalov are eerily similar to the even wackier Kovalchuk deal that the league rejected- forcing the Devils to rework it, even taking away picks and $3 million off last year's cap.

The biggest question is can it work. The jury remains out on that one with a lot more scrutiny over the next three seasons due to Henrik Lundqvist's contract expiring following '13-14. At 29, King Henrik's still in his prime, hungry to be part of a winner. Nobody takes losses harder. Now comes a new challenge for the shafted goalie who led the league in shutouts (11) but somehow was left out by blind squirrels (GM idiocy) for the Vezina. No disrespect to Roberto Luongo but he had a much better team and still couldn't close the deal. That's not the only reason the Canucks lost with the Sedin vanishing act dashing their hopes. For the first time since that '07 run that had us a couple of minutes away from a 3-2 lead on Buffalo until Tom Renney botched the final shift of regulation, Lundqvist has real pressure to perform. Offense should finally improve. He's been a model of consistency, winning 30-or-more in each of his half dozen seasons. There's no time like the present for King Henrik.

Is there enough talent to go from first round fodder to the sport's pinnacle in three years? It depends on draft and development with prospects Chris Kreider, Carl Hagelin, Christian Thomas and Ryan Bourque on the way. It's too much to expect '11 No.1 J.T. Miller to make any impact until at least '14-15 with the same expressed for potential steals Steven Fogarty and Michael St. Croix. The look of our roster probably will change because it's impossible to keep everyone. Nobody can predict trades, future signings or what the league will look like following next summer when the CBA is expected to decrease. It's why you see teams using signing bonuses to get a majority of the money up front to their freshly minted free agent pickups. The sport could be turned upside down. Though we're not forecasting an '04-05 repeat. A lot could change with Gary Bettman and Donald Fehr on a collision course.

Enjoy what Richards provides. A No.1 center who should bolster our chances. How far I can't really conclude. One thing's certain. When you hand out that kind of mega-deal over nine years, you expect to win. That means going far in the playoffs and winning at least a Cup. That's the cost along with the outrageous prices Dolan charges for his new castle. The Knicks might be gone quite a while, meaning the Rangers could be the only real draw in town. Yep. Demand will be through the roof. Can a big ticket finally deliver for the first time since Messier? Keep your fingers crossed.

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