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Could Richards return to Lightning?

If the Rangers buy out Brad Richards, he would immediately become an unrestricted free agent.

AP photo

If the Rangers buy out Brad Richards, he would immediately become an unrestricted free agent.

You remember Brad Richards.

He was born and raised on Canada's Prince Edward Island, but he's one of us. He's a Tampa Bay boy.

He came here when he was 20 and over the next few years helped turn the Lightning from a laughingstock into a champion. Richards might have had the biggest role of all in bringing the Stanley Cup to Tampa Bay. During that magical two-month Cup run back in 2004, Richards was the best hockey player on the planet and was awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy, given to the most valuable player of the playoffs.

Of course you remember him.

Ready to welcome him home again?

There seems to be a pretty fair chance his current team, the New York Rangers, will part ways with him this summer. If that happens, would the Lightning be interested? Probably. Should it be? Absolutely.

And here's the best part: The Lightning could get him on the cheap. There is speculation Richards could be had for three years and $3 million per year. Frankly, I think the Lightning — especially the Lightning — could get him for much less.

Close your eyes and imagine it:

Richards moving over to wing and lining up next to his old buddy Vinny Lecavalier. Richards quarterbacking a power play that could use a quarterback. Richards offering leadership in the locker room, on the bench and on the ice. Richards making the organization proud in the community.

For now, this is all speculation. No one can speak about it because Richards remains under contract to the Rangers. But that might change in the very near future. Here's how:

Richards has seven years and a whopping $36 million left on his contract. The Rangers would love to shed his $6.67 million annual salary cap hit. Under the new collective bargaining agreement, teams have two amnesty buyouts, meaning they can buy out a player's contract for two-thirds of what is left and not have it count against the salary cap. In Richards' case, the Rangers, who have one amnesty buyout left, could get out from the deal by paying him $24 million over the next 14 years.

That's a lot of money to pay someone to go away, but it's the cost of doing business if you want to rid yourself of a cumbersome contract. It appears that's what the Rangers are considering. Even Richards knows it.

Speaking with the media this week after the Rangers' second-round exit in the playoffs, Richards said, "I'm playing hockey next season no matter what. But I do understand everything that's going on."

If the Rangers do buy out Richards, he would immediately become an unrestricted free agent. At that point, it might be a race to see if Richards would call the Lightning first or if the Lightning would call Richards. They're a perfect fit, and Richards likely would be willing to give the Lightning a discount just to play in Tampa Bay again.

But let's be clear: The Richards who would be coming back would not be the same player who left in early 2008. He was 27 then, and now he's 33. The hands are a tad slower. The feet aren't quite as quick.

But he is far from over the hill.

In 46 regular-season games this year, Richards had 11 goals and 23 assists. Those 34 points would have been fourth on the Lightning, behind Marty St. Louis, Steven Stamkos and Teddy Purcell. Of his 34 points, 25 came at even strength, and he was plus-8, proving he remains a solid five-on-five player.

Last season Richards had 25 goals and 41 assists. He recently suggested the long layoff caused by the lockout threw his game offkilter. Maybe a normal season would get him back on track to being a 75-point player.

Really, the only knock against Richards — the only real reason for concern — is his disappointing play in the postseason this year. He had one goal and no assists in 10 games before being a healthy scratch his last two games. His play up until the postseason suggests the playoffs were nothing more than a slump and not the beginning of the end for Richards.

Bottom line: Richards remains a productive NHL player.

For that reason, there's still a chance the Rangers will want to keep him. John Tortorella, who coached Richards in Tampa Bay, was fired Wednesday by the Rangers. Even though Tortorella scratched Richards in the playoffs, he likely would have fought to keep Richards in a Rangers uniform. Maybe the new Rangers coach, whoever that ends up being, will fight to keep Richards, too. But maybe not.

Ultimately, what the new coach wants probably won't matter. This likely will come down to a business decision for the Rangers. They seem poised to take advantage of the rare opportunity to erase a contract of an aging player who is clogging up salary cap space.

That would give the Lightning the rare opportunity to sign a quality player at a discount price.

That the quality player is Brad Richards would make it all the more sweet. Sweet like a homecoming.

Could Richards return to Lightning? 05/30/13 [Last modified: Thursday, May 30, 2013 9:31pm]
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