Brad Richards' name has been connected to the Rangers over the last several years in trade rumors, but July 1st will mark the first time the Rangers will have an opportunity to acquire the elite center for nothing but the almighty dollar.
The Rangers have struggled to find a real first line center who has the ability to play on the first line with Marian Gaborik, who the Rangers will undoubtedly expect to have a bounce back season next season. John Tortorella tried a wide variety of first line combinations, but none of them seemed to click. Last year, Gaborik spent time with Erik Christensen, Vinny Prospal, Artem Anisimov, Derek Stepan, Brian Boyle Brandon Dubinsky and even Chris Drury (who was limited to just 24 regular season games) all centering his line at one point or another, and none of them seemed to click.
Despite the fact that the Dubinsky-Anisimov-Callahan line seemed to be the Rangers' best line over the duration of the season, there's no doubt that the Rangers will need Gaborik's line to be their best line if they expect to do any damage deep into the postseason next year. As good as the Rangers' leading goal-scorer Ryan Callahan was last year, Gaborik is still the most purely talented offensive weapon the Rangers have, as evidenced by his 42-goal campaign in his first season on Broadway.
Enter Brad Richards.
Richards is a two-for-one deal for the Blueshirts - he gives the Rangers the true playmaking center and Power Play quarterback that they have needed for years. Richards recorded 28 goals and 49 assists for 77 points in 72 games this past season with the Dallas Stars, and had a line of 24-67-91 in 80 games during the 2009-2010 season. There's no doubt what type of talent Brad Richards brings to the table, but the biggest question marks surrounding him are the fact that he missed 10 games this past season with a concussion and also how many years it'll take to sign No. 91, who is already 31 years old.
For better or worse (and often for worse), however, free agency is where Rangers GM Glen Sather has made his mark in the past. Sather has shown he's not afraid to throw around money in order to make a big splash in free agency, as evidenced by his recent signings of Marian Gaborik, Wade Redden, Chris Drury and Scott Gomez.
Larry Brooks of the New York Post actually argues that Sather shouldn't even wait until July 1st, and should look into trading for Richards' contract rights before free agency opens.
"Brad Richards isn't just the elite talent the Rangers lack, isn't just the upper-echelon first-line center the team lacks, isn't only the power play quarterback the Rangers do not have, he is a true believer in John Tortorella, the coach with whom the pivot won a Stanley Cup (and the Conn Smythe Trophy) with Tampa Bay in 2004.
The problem is, it's risky business for the Rangers to wait until July 1 for the Dallas center to become available to the highest bidder when a feeding frenzy marks the opening hours of free agency, and prices soar beyond reason due to the extremely limited supply of difference-makers on the market.
The Maple Leafs, who likely fancy themselves an elite player from being players in the Eastern playoff picture and who have oodles of cap space, will be in on Richards. The Kings, whose GM, Dean Lombardi, has had top talents slip through his fingers almost annually, are unlikely to be outbid for Richards. There may be a dark-horse franchise looking to make a splash that will drive the price up on the center who turned 31 early this month.
Dallas, still ownerless, meanwhile, has no shot even if the Stars wish to continue to delude themselves the way they deluded themselves at the trade deadline. At some point though, it's up to GM Joe Nieuwendyk to accept reality and see what he might be able to get for Richards' rights before No. 91 walks out the door for nothing in return."
It's hard to imagine what it would take for Sather to pry Brad Richards away from the Stars prior to free agency opening, but it doesn't hurt looking into. Sather has already shown that he won't trade away any of the Rangers' top youngsters in the system and after getting this close to July 1st, at this point he may just take his chances of being able to sign Richards away once free agency opens. Sather and the Rangers will probably hope that Richards' past success with John Tortorella will also sway him towards signing with the Rangers, and I'm sure Sather will use that as a drawing point once he's able to sit down and speak with Richards and/or his agent.
For the Rangers, ultimately, it's simple: despite the concussion last year and the fact that Richards is already 31 year old and will likely end up with at least a 5-year deal, he is not the type of talent the Rangers can afford to pass up. Henrik Lundqvist and Marian Gaborik are entering the prime years of their career, while core guys like Brandon Dubinsky, Ryan Callahan, Marc Staal, Ryan McDonagh and Derek Stepan will only continue to get better within the next several years. The Rangers finally have the opportunity to get the man they have coveted for years and they won't have to give up any of their young guys to do it. The reward is greater than the risk in this situation, and it's a gamble the Rangers can't afford to pass up.