Wednesday, March 12, 2008

What Tampa Should Have Done With Brad Richards

A few days ago I wrote that Tampa Bay frittered away Brad Richards when the traded him to the Dallas Stars along with Johan Holmqvist for Mike Smith, Jussi Jokinen, Jeff Halpern and a fourth round draft pick because Richards is signed well into the future and is clearly the best player in the deal. Tampa Bay did not obtain anything in return that makes them any more of a contender then they would be without him. That prompted some interesting comments from Matt Fenwick of the Battle of Alberta who points out among other things that Brad Richards is one of the most overpaid players in the NHL.

From a Tampa Bay standpoint, Brad Richards's salary should not be a concern for any salary cap reasons and the fact that they recently signed Dan Boyle for almost as much money shows that it doesn't seem to be a financial concern either. Tampa has been a bad team this year. They are currently last place in the East Conference and second last on the NHL. They do not have a good group of young players on the horizon (in fact The Hockey News ranks them as the worst group of prospects any NHL team has). However, all hope should not have been lost. This team won the Stanley Cup in 2004. They did it with Brad Richards, Martin St Louis and Vincent LeCavalier leading the way (up until the trade deadline they had all three players and all are young enough to still produce well - though Richards hasn't done so this season). Of course, they also had top goaltending from Nikolai Khabibulin, who is now playing with Chicago and they had more talented depth than they do now. This season, their goaltending has been awful and the depth has not been there (their top scorer outside of the 3 stars or those they got in return for Richards is Michel Ouellet who has 31 points). Nevertheless, they had a real strength with three very talented forwards in their lineup and Stanley Cups are won from strength.

Brad Richards was having a poor year and seemed to have failed to become a superstar, but how often can you find a 27 year old player who has won the Lady Byng and Conn Smythe Trophies and led the playoffs in scoring in his lifetime? He was clearly struggling and there were identifiable plausible reasons for it. He has been suffering from mononucleosis this season, but despite that coach John Tortorella insisted on giving him a huge amount of ice time. He is a player that The Hockey News rated 30th in the NHL last summer and even with a drop from that ranking, based on this season, was still one of the better talents in the NHL.

In terms of a "bang for the buck", there are players out there who will provide more than Richards likely will considering Richards makes $7.8 million per year, but none of those players are likely to come to Tampa Bay in the near future. The idea that Richards was traded for salary cap space is a crazy one. Sure moving a big contract frees some salary cap room (which was promptly filled with Dan Boyle's contract), but what business does a team like Tampa have in having salary cap problems? They are a bad team. They do not have the talent that they should need their whole cap space. They are not using it this season, as they have a projected $42 million cap hit which is on the low side of the NHL.

A team should only have salary cap problems when they have a good young core that are all due raises. It is hard to keep a core like that together. That is why it's hard to keep a good team together under the salary cap. Sure a team might want some spending money to sign some free agents, but teams will not win by signing big ticket free agents. Last year, the only free agent available in the previous year's Hockey News top 50 players was Ryan Smyth. This year, Marian Hossa is likely the only free agent on the current top 50 list. There are not enough big ticket free agents around that a team can expect to significantly improve by signing them. Where a team can improve is by signing the cheaper free agents. Likely, there are players who will be bargains who will have good seasons in the future. Those are the players Tampa Bay should be targeting and they won't need significant cap room to sign them, if they are smart enough to identify them in the first place.

It could be argued that Tampa traded Brad Richards's big salary so that they could afford to give one to Dan Boyle. That is a poor move, if it is true, because Richards is likely a better player. He is younger and more accomplished than Boyle. Boyle turns 32 this summer. Likely his best years are gone. It is more likely that Brad Richards has some good years left in his career.

The further complicating factor in the Tampa Bay situation is Vincent LeCavalier. Al Strachan said on the Satellite Hotstove feature on Hockey Night in Canada that LeCavalier has requested a trade. LeCavalier is denying this statement. However, if Tampa is forced to trade LeCavalier this summer, it is a trade they likely cannot win. Few NHL players are as good as LeCavalier and Tampa is unlikely to get any of them in return. Having traded Brad Richards and not received any star players in return would only make it worse to have to do the same with LeCavalier too. If Tampa has to do that, then it is probably time for a rebuild of the franchise. Signing as 32 year old Dan Boyle for six seasons at$6.67 million per year is a stupid move for such a team to have made.

Brad Richards is a good player. He has shown this in the past. He is not having a particularly good season this year, but there is reason to believe he will be able to do better in the future. He is overpaid. On a team like Tampa, who has no reason to have a payroll approaching the salary cap, that should not be an issue. Trading Richards and not getting any star players in return is a salary dump. It is a stupid salary dump since the team is simultaneously signing an older less accomplished Dan Boyle for almost the same money.

So what should the Tampa Bay Lightning have done with Brad Richards? They should have kept him. There is a principle in building assets. Buy low, sell high. Tampa Bay traded Richards at what is likely his low point. That is just dumb.

Slight correction/clarification? Maybe there is a transcript somewhere, but as I recall it, Strachan did not say that Vinny had requested a trade; he said that Vinny was not interested in signing a contract extension there.

The implications for the Lighting are identical -- they'll need to trade him in the offseason -- but from the player's perspective, demanding a trade is quite a bit different (e.g. can be considered more of a betrayal of TB fans) than declining to sign a new contract.

On Richards, I still think he's a $3M/yr player with a $7.8M/yr contract, but I will concede that a summer of recuperation, combined with more sensible ice time next season, could boost his performance level.
I think the story from Al Starchan is the LeCavlaier won't resign and will ask for a trade this summer.
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