‘Rangers Inside And Out’
By Sean Hartnett
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On Thursday morning, the Tampa Bay Lightning announced their intention to buy out captain Vincent Lecavalier, creating a huge buzz across the hockey landscape. Tampa Bay was willing to eat $32.67 million to make Lecavalier their all-time games played leader, and his annual cap hit of $7.727 million will disappear from their cramped salary cap.
One by one, the dominoes are falling. A number of genuinely-talented centers are hitting the market. First, it was the Philadelphia Flyers announcing Danny Briere’s buyout, and Thursday it was the Lightning sending Lecavalier packing. Does this mean that a breakup between the New York Rangers and Brad Richards is inevitable?
Perhaps. It’s all in the hands of Rangers general manager Glen Sather. I don’t envy his position. Sather’s chief task is to do what he thinks is best for the Rangers organization, and it isn’t always a straightforward decision.
Once Alain Vigneault took over as the new head coach of the Rangers, he admitted that the first player he reached out to was Richards, according to CBC’s Elliotte Friedman.
Vigneault and Richards have a relationship stretching back to 2004. Richards kept himself sharp by practicing with Vigneault’s junior team, the Prince Edward Island Rocket, before playing for Ak Bars Kazan during the 2004-05 NHL lockout.
“I know Brad a little bit,” Vigneault said on Friday in a media session following his introductory press conference. “When I was coaching in P.E.I during the prior lockout, he came over and practiced with my team ’til he went overseas in Russia. He was an outstanding individual.”
Richards impressed Vigneault through his character by serving as an assistant coach without a title. After every practice, he always took three or four guys with him to help work on different things that he felt was important.
“I saw then and there that he was a quality person,” Vigneault said. “Not quite sure what happened here with the Rangers. There’s some people here that understand situation much better than I. So, we’ll see what happens.”
As much as Vigneault might appreciate Richards’ ability and character, it isn’t his decision. Sather will have to think carefully about whether buying out Richards this summer as opposed to next summer is worth the risk. He’ll have to have an upgrade lined up either through free agency or trade before deciding to cut Richards loose.
Should Sather opt to buy out Richards this summer, it would cost the Rangers $24 million spread over 14 years and would immediately free up $6.67 in annual cap space. If he waits until the summer of 2014, the Rangers would pay Richards $18 million over 12 years.
DESTINATIONS OF BOUGHT OUT PLAYERS HARD TO PREDICT
As many as 15 teams have indicated an interest in Briere according to CSN Philadelphia insider Tim Panaccio. Briere is probably the least attractive of the three skillful centers should Lecavalier, Briere and Richards all be bought out. At 35, he is two years older and lacks defensive zone awareness.
Lecavalier would be the biggest prize due to him being the most complete centerman of the trio. Richards and Briere are better playmakers, while Lecavalier adds size and physicality with 6-foot-4, 214 pound frame.
Two teams that make immediate sense for Lecavalier are the Montreal Canadiens and Detroit Red Wings, as both franchises are in the market for a number two center. Given the chance to play in his native province of Quebec, I’d imagine Lecavalier would jump at the opportunity to suit up for the Habs in their storied “bleu, blanc et rouge” uniforms.
I don’t think the Rangers have a shot at signing Lecavalier and buying out Richards to join “The Lecavalier Sweepstakes” would come off as a desperate move that could leave the Blueshirts empty-handed. When it comes down to it, I think Sather will do the prudent thing and stick with Richards for another year.
Sure, the Rangers could use extra cap room to extend Henrik Lundqvist’s contract and help with their offseason list of priorities, including agreeing new deals with RFAs Ryan McDonagh, Derek Stepan, Carl Hagelin and Mats Zuccarello as well as UFA Ryane Clowe.
Sather’s plan, most likely, is to give Richards one more shot at proving himself under an offensive coach in Vigneault, before having to decide whether or not to exercise his final buyout next summer.
You can follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey.
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