It took Brad Richards just one day of free agency to decide which team he wanted to sign with. In the end, that team was the New York Rangers, and Richards signed a 9-year, $60 million contract with the team.
By far the most coveted free agent this year, Richards sought big money and a big term heading into July 1, when his contract with the Dallas Stars expired and he was free to negotiate with any team.
The Toronto Maple Leafs, Calgary Flames, and even the Los Angeles Kings were rumoured to be in hot pursuit of the 31-year old centre. Last night, Richards told TSN's Gino Reda that he had narrowed the decision down to three or four teams, and that he would likely decide today who he will suit up for next season.
The Rangers had the most flexibility in terms of cap room, having just over $16 million left even after the Richards signing, which is more than the Maple Leafs had prior.
Richards joins his former coach from Tampa Bay in John Tortorella, and that may have been a deciding factor for him, as the two won a Stanley Cup together in 2004. Richards told TSN that other than Tortorella, the location and structure of the Rangers was a key factor for him.
"The huge thing all along was going to a hockey market with stable ownership," Richards said. "A big thing in my mind that I never said openly was getting back East, it was important to me."
The deal will have an annual cap hit of $6.5 million, leaving the Rangers $16 million to sign just under ten more players. They are currently committed to 16 players, so they will need to sign some more to fill out the roster.
With the news of the Richards signing, perhaps the biggest domino to fall in this years free agency, other teams that had been in pursuit of him went to Plan B.
The Toronto Maple Leafs signed centre Tim Connolly, formerly of the Buffalo Sabres, to a two-year deal worth $9.5 million. Connolly, not necessarily the #1 centre the Leafs were hoping for, scored 42 points in 68 games for the Sabres last year. The season prior, Connolly set career highs in assists (48) and points (65), helping the Sabres to a berth in the playoffs, where they were ousted by the Boston Bruins in the first round.
Connolly has a long history of injuries that will raise questions about his steep price tag, but if healthy the New York native could prove to be the missing piece the Leafs are looking for to centre Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul.
The Kings also went with a different plan after Richards signed, inking veteran forward Simon Gagne to a two-year contract that will pay him $3.5 million a season. It will likely be regarded as one of the best deals of the off-season, given the market for top six forwards this summer with the signings of Ville Leino in Buffalo ($4.5 million a season) and Michael Ryder in Dallas ($3.5 million).
With a large crop of the top forwards gone, there are few big names left on the market, though players like Alexander Frolov and Cory Stillman will garner some attention from teams looking to fill out their club up front. On the defensive end, there are still big names like Bryan McCabe, Tomas Kaberle, and Scott Hannan available.
The Washington Capitals needed to sort out their three-goalie carousel before next season, and took the first step yesterday by trading rookie Semyon Varlamov to the Colorado Avalanche. The Capitals used the cap space and open starter position to lure possibly the most valuable free agent available in Tomas Vokoun.
Vokoun, who has spent his career in small NHL markets like Nashville and Florida, will finally get a chance with a top offensive team, led by the likes of Alexander Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. Vokoun signed a one-year deal with the Capitals worth $1.5 million, which financially is a huge bonus for the Caps if Vokoun is able to deliver the numbers he's consistently put up through his career. The two-time all-star has posted a career .917 save percentage and a 2.56 goals against average with two teams that were mediocre at best while Vokoun was playing for them.
As the big chips fell today, there are a few free agents remaining that will continue to get attention from around the league, but most of the big deals have been signed. General managers will have July and August to round out their roster before training camp and the pre-season in September, where this weekends signings will be able to get ready for the upcoming season with their new teams.