Brad Richards took the path most expected he would, rejoining head coach John Tortorella by signing with the New York Rangers.
The most anticipated decision of this year's NHL free-agent market came late Saturday morning, a day after Richards entertained pitches from several teams, some in-person at his agent's office and others via conference call. One of the conference callers, the Rangers, landed him with a nine-year contract for a total of $60-million (all currency U.S.), according to TSN.
The deal, which works out to a salary-cap friendly $6.67-million per season was a surprisingly low total given the Friday's frenzied activity on the first day of free-agent season. It appears Richards, 31, left at least some money on the table to rejoin Tortorella, with whom he won a Stanley Cup in 2004 when they were both with the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Richards said Friday night the race was down to four teams, presumed to be the Rangers, Los Angeles Kings, Toronto Maple Leafs and Calgary Flames.
The pitches for the veteran centre's services included video appeals from Kobe Bryant and Wayne Gretzky on behalf of the Kings and a telephone pitch from Flames star Jarome Iginla.
Richards seemed flabbergasted by all of the attention. He said in an interview with Rogers Sportsnet "the whole day was pretty crazy. For a kid from Murray Harbour, PEI, it was a lot of stuff thrown at me in one day I never imagined I'd see. It was neat. I'll chalk it up as one of those experiences in my life I'll look back on and have good memories on."
The criteria for Richards' choice, he said, were "stable ownership, a hockey environment, with a plan on putting together a team not just now but for a while." He said he "got burned on that with the last two teams," the Lightning and Dallas Stars, because of ownership changes. He mentioned the Lightning dismantling the 2004 Stanley Cup team two years after the championship, which may be one reason the Lightning were out of the race for his services by Friday night.
However, the biggest factor, which the three runners-up could not overcome, was Richards' desire to play for Tortorella again. In a statement released by the Rangers, he said, "I've seen how [Tortorella]operates, it's worked, I know that firsthand, and I can see how he's bringing this young team along in New York. You factor all that in together, this was just the right fit for me."
Like most of the big contracts signed in this free-agent season, Richards' deal is front-loaded in order to lessen the cap hit and any problems that may crop up with the new collective agreement next year. He is expected to get most of the money in the first five years, as much as $50-million.
The last three years of the contract call for a salary of $1-million in each year. This serves the dual function of bringing down the cap hit in average salary and seeing Richards gets most of his money on the front end to protect him from a lockout or strike if the labour negotiations in 2012 break down.
For that, the Rangers are getting a good but not great centre, although he did run up 77 points in 72 games with the Stars last season. But he did suffer a major concussion late in the season and he has had hip problems.
It will also be interesting to see how Richards, a low-key personality, handles the spotlight in New York. He will not get as much attention as players from the New York Yankees and New York Knicks or either of the city's NFL teams but as the Rangers' latest big-money signing, Richards will be in the public eye much more than he ever has in his 10-year NHL career.
After missing out on the No. 1 centre they badly need, the Maple Leafs turned around and signed free-agent centre Tim Connolly. TSN reported he agreed to a two-year contract for an average of $4.75-million, which represents a gamble for the Maple Leafs due to his injury problems.
The Kings contented themselves with veteran winger Simon Gagne. He made a verbal agreement to a two-year contract at $3.5-million per year. Gagne, 31, is another player who battled injuries in recent years but should be a good fit with either Mike Richards or Anze Kopitar in Los Angeles. He had 40 points in 63 games last season with the Lightning.
The second day of the NHL's free-agent auction started much slower than Friday.
Aside from Richards, Gagne and Connolly, the only other significant signings on Saturday saw forward Anthony Stewart sign with the Carolina Hurricanes and defenceman Ian White go to the Detroit Red Wings.
Stewart, 26, finally established himself as an NHL regular last season with the Atlanta Thrashers with 39 points in 80 games. He decided not to make the move to Winnipeg with the Thrashers and became a free agent, signing for two years for a total of $1.8-million with the Hurricanes.
The weekend was quiet for the Winnipeg Jets. They were not expected to make a big splash in the free-agent market and signed four depth players, forwards Tanner Glass, Rick Rypien and Aaron Gagnon and defenceman Derek Meech, who is a Winnipeg native.
But they did get defenceman Randy Jones on Saturday for one year at $1.15-million, according to TSN.
Saturday's other notable signing saw the Rangers lose defenceman Matt Gilroy to the Lightning.
Just two years ago, Gilroy, 26, was the hot prize in the bidding for U.S. college free agents. But he was never able to establish himself with the Rangers. He had just 11 points in 58 games last season, his second in the NHL. Gilroy went to Tampa for a one-year deal for $1-million, according to Sportsnet's Nick Kypreos.