The end of the Dallas Stars’ season has given center Brad Richards more time to mull his future.
Set to become the best available player in this summer's unrestricted free agent market, Richards recently told reporters he'll patiently consider his options, noting he has until July 1, when the UFA market opens, to make a decision.
He admitted to ESPN he was “kind of hesitant” about returning to the Stars if the ownership situation was still unresolved.
Stars GM Joe Nieuwendyk said he's had discussions with Richards throughout the season, insisting the team's willingness to retain the playmaking center hasn't changed.
However, Nieuwendyk might not be able to re-sign Richards as long as the club continues to be run by its creditors as they pursue a new owner to take over the team.
If new ownership isn't in place before this summer, Nieuwendyk will likely be forced to keep his payroll for next season as close to the league's salary cap minimum - expected to be $46.2 million - as possible. Currently, the Stars have roughly $38.6 million invested in 17 players for next season and while they have no restricted free agents to re-sign, they have several UFAS to either re-sign or replace, with Richards topping the list.
Even if the Stars can come up with the money to retain Richards, that might not be enough to keep him in the Lone Star State.
Richards witnessed first-hand the unravelling of the Tampa Bay Lightning several years ago as that club suffered through ownership problems, resulting in management asking him to waive his no-trade clause at the 2008 deadline as a cost-cutting move.
Richards not only doesn't want to go through that again, but wants assurances the Stars will have ownership committed to building and maintaining a winner. He doesn't want to get tied into a long-term deal with a team whose ownership can't or won't invest in the club.
The potential availability of Richards this summer will inevitably link him to the Toronto Maple Leafs. GM Brian Burke admitted earlier this week his priority is to find a first-line center, though it might prove difficult.
Terry Koshan of the Toronto Sun noted Burke has plenty of available cap space this summer, but might not want to invest too much in an expensive player. Plus, there isn't much depth in quality free agent centers. Koshan suggested the Leafs GM might instead prefer to address that need via trade.
Given Burke's history of making bold deals, it wouldn't be surprising if he went that route, perhaps by targeting cap-strapped teams desperate to dump salary this summer by offering up affordable young players, prospects and/or draft picks.
Burke isn't the only GM noted for his willingness to make significant moves, as Atlanta Thrashers GM Rick Dudley recently said one of his priorities this off-season was to acquire a scoring forward.
Dudley made two significant trades last summer, plucking away Dustin Byfuglien and Andrew Ladd from the Chicago Blackhawks in separate deals and it's possible he’ll target other teams looking to cut payroll this summer.
Dudley’s top priority is to re-sign team captain Ladd, who posted career-best numbers (29 goals and 59 points) in his first season with the Thrashers.
Dudley sounded optimistic about re-signing Ladd and claimed the left winger wanted to remain with the Thrashers, but the captain won't be cheap to retain.
A restricted free agent, Ladd earned $2.35 million last season and could seek upwards of $4 million per on a new deal. He’ll also become a potential target for an offer sheet if still unsigned by July 1.
Further complicating things are reports suggesting the Thrashers could be sold and relocated this summer if there's no potential ownership willing to purchase the club and keep it in Atlanta.
The Thrashers finished this season with the league's second-lowest payroll and depending on their ownership situation could, like the Dallas Stars, be forced to keep payroll close to the league minimum.
Currently the Thrashers have more than $37.6 million tied up in 17 players and, in addition to Ladd, must re-sign key RFAs Blake Wheeler, Zach Bogosian and Anthony Stewart.
Rumor Roundup appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays only on thehockeynews.com. Lyle Richardson has been an NHL commentator since 1998 on his website, spectorshockey.net, and is a contributing writer for Foxsports.com and Eishockey Magazine.
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