When future sports archaeologists uncover fossils such as Brad Richards’s nine-year, $60 million contract, they will know they have hit upon the era before the 2012-13 NHL lockout. Richards’s contract is a classic example of backdiving, the practice of tucking phony years onto the tail of a deal to decrease its annual average value.
It used to be a trend-setting technique. Teams signed players such as Marc Savard, Roberto Luongo, Marian Hossa, Johan Franzen, Vincent Lecavalier, and Christian Ehrhoff to backdiving contracts. The lockout and the current collective bargaining agreement have made them as dated as mullets and Trans Ams.
The 34-year-old Richards is under contract for six more seasons with a cap hit of $6,666,667 annually. There is no way Richards makes it to the final year of his deal. He will be 40. It is a contract so heavy that it could pull Madison Square Garden into the Hudson River.
In the final three years of his contract, Richards will earn $1 million annually. In comparison, Richards’s pay was $12 million annually in 2011-12 and 2012-13, according to www.capgeek.com.
If Richards retires before the conclusion of his contract, he would leave the Rangers on the hook per the league’s cap benefit recapture penalty, the measure included in the post-lockout CBA to punish cap circumvention. For example, if Richards retired after the 2017-18 season, the Rangers would have to carry $5,666,667 annually for the next two seasons toward their cap number. This is dead money no team can afford, regardless of how high the cap might rise by then.
Richards’s contract, however, may not even be the biggest reason the Rangers should use their get-out-of-jail-free card this summer and use a compliance buyout on their No. 2 center. Richards’s legs are fading. It’s shown in his play.
When the Rangers needed Richards the most, the de facto captain didn’t deliver. Through the first four games of the Stanley Cup Final, Richards submitted zeros across the board: no goals, no assists, no points. The No. 2 line of Richards between Carl Hagelin and Martin St. Louis had no presence during the first three games.
As the line’s center, most of this shortcoming falls on Richards. He was always chasing the game because he never had the puck. In Game 2, a 5-4 double-overtime loss, Richards was on the ice for three Kings goals, including Dustin Brown’s winner.
“Game 2 was rough,” Richards said on Thursday. “I just couldn’t get out of my own way.”
By Game 4, Alain Vigneault had seen enough. The Rangers coach dropped Richards to the fourth line with Brian Boyle and Derek Dorsett and replaced Richards on the second line with Dominic Moore. Richards played 13:20, second-least among team forwards.
“I talked to Brad about the decision I made,” Vigneault told reporters after the Rangers’ 2-1 win in Game 4. “At this time of the year, it’s only about one thing. It’s about the team. You guys know how Richards has been this year — the ultimate pro. He’s fine with whatever I do.”
The Kings exploited New York’s fragility down the middle. The Kings roll four strong, experienced, heavy centers: Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter, Jarret Stoll, and Mike Richards. They’re all hard to play against. They lean on opponents. They create offense from defense. They give the opposition no room to breathe.
The Rangers were the weaklings at the beach getting sand kicked in their face. Derek Stepan is New York’s version of David Krejci — a clever and shifty top-line center. In his best days, Richards was a versatile and smart player. Derick Brassard is a skilled pivot. Moore is a gritty (normally fourth-line) center. The Kings dominated the Rangers in the middle. Their offense flowed from their centers.
This didn’t hurt the Rangers in the Eastern Conference finals. They matched up against the Canadiens’ David Desharnais, Tomas Plekanec, Lars Eller, and Daniel Briere, none of whom is considered a heavyweight pivot.
If the Rangers cut ties with Richards, Brassard could move up to the second line. Brassard is one of the Rangers’ better players. He created offense between Benoit Pouliot and Mats Zuccarello. The 26-year-old, who will be a restricted free agent this summer, likes to handle the puck.
But Brassard and his linemates had success partly because of their third-line status. They didn’t play against top defensive tandems. Brassard’s competition will improve if he moves up to the second line.
The alternative would be for the Rangers to enter the Joe Thornton auction. The Sharks are rebuilding. They’ve already split up their dangerous top-line punch of Thornton and Brent Burns by moving the right wing back to defense.
Thornton loves San Jose, on and off the ice. He has a no-movement clause. But he might waive it to play with good friend Rick Nash. They would be an overwhelming duo. They both excel at lugging the puck down low. Thornton’s vision and quick mitts could help turn Nash’s chances into goals.
Vigneault could also keep Thornton and Nash apart. This would force opposing coaches to make a deployment decision. If Stepan and Nash drew the toughest competition, Thornton would have more space to work his hold-and-dish game, with St. Louis being his go-to triggerman.
There would be roadblocks, including Thornton’s no-movement clause. The Rangers already parted with three draft picks as part of the St. Louis trade with Tampa Bay. They would have to sacrifice more futures to land Thornton. The ex-Bruin also has a lot of gray in his beard. He will turn 35 on July 2.
Rangers assistant general manager Jeff Gorton would also have to participate in the transaction. Gorton was part of the management group in Boston that determined Thornton expendable in the blockbuster with San Jose on Nov. 30, 2005. Gorton and his former colleagues didn’t consider Thornton a cornerstone piece of a Cup-winning club.
Nine years later, Thornton has yet to win a title. New York would be a heck of spot for Thornton to turn the trick.
Kings have built through draft, trades
Of the 23 players who appeared in the playoffs for Los Angeles, only four became Kings via free agency: Jake Muzzin, Willie Mitchell, Martin Jones, and Jeff Schultz. The Kings signed Muzzin to a three-year, $2.7 million entry-level contract, according to www.capgeek.com. They gave Mitchell a two-year, $7 million deal. Jones signed a two-year, $1.1 million contract. Schultz is on a one-year, $700,000 deal. The Kings built the rest of their roster via the draft and trades.
Among the 16 playoff teams, three led the way with eight players each acquired through free agency: Montreal (David Desharnais, Daniel Briere, Brian Gionta, Francis Bouillon, Brandon Prust, Travis Moen, Douglas Murray, Peter Budaj), Dallas (Ryan Garbutt, Vernon Fiddler, Jordie Benn, Antoine Roussel, Ray Whitney, Brenden Dillon, Chris Mueller, Aaron Rome), and Philadelphia (Jason Akeson, Mark Streit, Matt Read, Vincent Lecavalier, Erik Gustafsson, Michael Raffl, Hal Gill, Ray Emery).
Free agency’s impact lessens by the season. Teams chasing the market’s best players must trump their competitors’ bids and overpay. It leaves them with less money to pay their homegrown players or add salary through trades.
Building through unrestricted free agency is a complementary process. The Kings identified skills in Muzzin and Jones that 29 other teams didn’t consider worthy of contracts. They signed Mitchell and Schultz as depth defensemen. LA invests its assets into drafting and developing. It’s showed in the results.
It’s easy to see both sides of shot-blocking
Had Corey Crawford gotten a bead on Alec Martinez’s overtime shot in Game 7 in the Western Conference finals, it’s possible the Blackhawks could have won back-to-back Cups. But Nick Leddy, as he’s been coached to do, was standing in front of the net just as Martinez’s shot approached. The puck bounced off Leddy’s right arm and fluttered through his right armpit. Crawford, who had been positioned for the expected trajectory of Martinez’s shot, was helpless to stop the carom.
That’s life as an NHL goalie. You want to see the release. But sometimes your teammates get in the way.
“He likes to see the puck, especially on point shots,” Rangers defenseman Kevin Klein said of Henrik Lundqvist. “If it’s from the outside, he’d rather take it himself instead of us throwing the body out in front. He definitely appreciates it when there’s a lot of scrambling and chaos going on and you’re blocking those shots. But he’d rather us box out, especially on long point shots.”
Blocking shots is part of a coach’s game plan. Forwards must challenge shooters at the point. Net-front defensemen are the final layer of protection. All this is meant to help goalies. But shot blocking can also backfire.
In Game 3 of the Cup Final, Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi hit the deck to stop Jeff Carter’s shot. The puck ticked off Girardi’s skate and zoomed over Lundqvist’s glove. Later in Game 3, Martin St. Louis, parked in the slot, tried to swat away Jake Muzzin’s snap shot. The puck bounced off St. Louis’s glove and beat Lundqvist.
“If you’re going to make that commitment to block it, you better block it,” Klein said.
The Kings are in excellent shape for another Cup run in 2014-15. Their only UFAs will be Marian Gaborik, Willie Mitchell, and Matt Greene. Of the three, Gaborik is the most important piece. The explosive wing helped turned the Kings from peashooters into lethal marksmen. Gaborik is unlike other breakaway forwards because of his willingness to enter the dirty areas. He’s terrific at scoring on rebounds and swatting in pucks in midair. The Kings will have enough cap space to bring back Gaborik, whose asking price will start at $6 million annually. Of the two defensemen, LA would prefer to keep Mitchell, their second-pairing, left-shot man.
Washington worried Penguins
Had the Penguins done right by coach Dan Bylsma and fired him May 16, the same day they said goodbye to general manager Ray Shero, it’s possible the Capitals could have interviewed him to replace Adam Oates. Instead, Pittsburgh retained Bylsma until June 6. Owner Mario Lemieux didn’t think enough of Bylsma to let him coach another year. But by letting him hang for almost a month, the Penguins showed they were worried enough about a division rival improving under Bylsma’s watch. The move backfired. Barry Trotz, Oates’s replacement, is a better coach than Bylsma. It also didn’t help the Penguins’ reputation around the league.
Open for shoppers
From June 25-30, teams may interview unrestricted free agents, before the July 1 opening of free agency. The interview window overlaps partly with the draft, which will take place June 27-28 in Philadelphia. Some of the teams may choose to conduct interviews in Philadelphia, as all of their hockey operations personnel will be in the city in preparation for the draft. While teams can agree to terms with players within this period, no contracts can be signed until July 1.
Hutchinson comes up big
Ex-Bruin Michael Hutchinson didn’t start the Calder Cup Final the way he wanted. The goalie saw Texas pump in six goals in St. John’s 6-3 loss. Hutchinson rallied with a 49-save doozy in St. John’s 2-1 Game 2 win. It marked the most saves by a goalie in the Final since Felix Potvin made 50 stops for St. John’s against Adirondack in 1992. Hutchinson was the Bruins’ third-round pick in 2008, but he never gained traction in Providence. The Bruins declined to make Hutchinson a qualifying offer after 2012-13. Winnipeg then signed the unrestricted free agent. The 24-year-old Hutchinson could push for varsity action next season. The Jets return trick-or-treat starter Ondrej Pavelec, but do not have an experienced backup. Winnipeg could also be a landing spot for Chad Johnson.
Playing it safe
Justin Williams scored the overtime winner in Game 1 of the Cup Final after a Dan Girardi giveaway. Girardi’s troubles started after the puck bounced off his stick. Girardi tried to recover, but from one knee, the right-shot defenseman sent the puck up the right wall, and Mike Richards intercepted. It was an example where the Rangers’ practice of blowing the zone cost them the game. Ryan McDonagh and Benoit Pouliot headed the other way once Girardi attempted his initial breakout pass. This would probably not have happened with the Bruins. They’re instructed to stay at home, ensure the safe removal of the puck from the defensive zone, and proceed up the ice with numbers and speed.
Nice to see former Bruins assistant coach Craig Ramsay touch down in Edmonton. Ramsay will be an assistant to Dallas Eakins and be reunited with Andrew Ference, one of his blue-line pupils in Boston. Ramsay has had tough luck. His first head coaching gig in Atlanta went sideways after the Thrashers relocated to Winnipeg. In his second year in Florida, the floundering Panthers sacked Ramsay and Kevin Dineen . . . Benoit Groulx will coach Canada’s entry in the 2015 World Junior Championship. Two of Groulx’s former charges with Gatineau of the QMJHL: David Krejci and Claude Giroux. Groulx did a good job developing both juniors. The Bruins once considered Groulx for an assistant’s job in Providence . . . Kings coach Darryl Sutter used Martin Gelinas as a comparable for Williams, LA’s clutch third-line right wing. Gelinas scored 309 goals in 1,273 career games. Sutter coached Gelinas on the forward’s back nine in Calgary in 2003-04. Like Gelinas, Williams’s best asset is his hockey sense. When you wonder how the heck a player got so wide open before scoring, it’s a good indication that he’s using his brain to find space . . . The Boston Wiffle Ball Challenge will take place Saturday at Boston University’s Nickerson Field from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Proceeds will benefit the Travis Roy Foundation and the Franciscan Hospital for Children. For more information, visit www.bostonwiffleballchallenge.org . . . As a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin in 2008-09, McDonagh’s teammates included Jamie McBain, Jake Gardiner, and Brendan Smith. That would be a very good top-four formation of defensemen in the NHL. That’s as good as it gets in college hockey. It’s a mystery the Badgers only went 20-16-14 that season . . . The Canadiens gave their players three offseason tasks: rest, work out, and study the World Cup. It helps to learn the art of diving from the best in the business.Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeFluto. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.