|MIKE RICHARDS 12-year commitment|
The Flyers, their game in what Wall Street might term a "quiet period" while under watch by NHL headquarters for delivering wanton head shots to opponents this season, Thursday delivered a league-wide two-hander to budgets across the Original 30.
Under no extreme pressure, or even moderate discomfort, general manager Paul Holmgren signed off on a deal that will pay third-year center Mike Richards $69 million over the next 12 seasons. At the hour the deal was finalized, the talented Richards had all of 100 points in 166 NHL games.
Again, money has proven to be no object in the league's capped salary system.
Some 15 months ago, it was the Islanders committing budgetary lunacy, inking then-25-year-old netminder Rick DiPietro to a 15-year deal worth $67.5 million. The Goalie for Life at the time stood a sub.-500 58-62-13. With a 3-2 loss to Pittsburgh last night, the ex-BU Terrier has gone 46-31-11 since signing the historic pact.
Now we have the Flyers sizing up the 22-year-old Richards, the 24th overall pick in the 2003 draft, as their franchise piece going forward - up to and including the 2019-20 season (good seats still available for that '19-20 opener).
What's it all about? Well, specifically, it's about: 1. Thomas Vanek and 2. Dustin Penner. And, to a certain extent, Brad Richards, too.
In fact, let's begin with Brad Richards, who was 26 in May 2006 when the Lightning extended his deal five years for a total $39 million (or a $7.8 million average). At least his dossier included a playoff MVP (2004), and at the time he ranked only behind Jaromir Jagr and Joe Thornton for assists (261) over the five years leading up to the new contract.
"It shows where this organization is going," coach John Tortorella said the day of the deal. "It's going to be around him - he deserves it."
GM Jay Feaster feared someone could walk in and steal Richards with a Group 2 free agent offer sheet - one that he would have had the right to match. Rather than get boxed in, Feaster chose to be proactive, only to watch Richards's production last season drop by 21 points, to 25-45 -70. This season, Richards is on pace for 80 points, an improvement, but clearly Vincent Lecavalier has emerged as the franchise player for the Bolts, and the takers would be few, if any, for the underperforming Richards.
Fast-forward to this past summer. The Oilers thought they had a deal done with unrestricted free agent Michael Nylander, only to see him renege and bolt for a return to Washington. (Exhibit A: Be careful what you wish for). With Nylander gone, Oilers GM Kevin Lowe turned maverick, unwilling to conform to the unwritten rules of standard GM conduct, and dropped a Group 2 offer sheet on Vanek, 23 years old and fresh off a 43-goal season with Buffalo. With truly no option but to match, the Sabres held on to Vanek, who, with a goal and an assist in last night's 3-1 win over Chicago, has 21 points in 31 games. A pricey hold at seven years/$50 million.
Not to be denied, Lowe promptly turned to the Ducks' roster, and lavished former Maine Black Bear Penner, he of 52 career points in 101 NHL games, with a five-year deal worth $21.25 million. The Ducks blinked and let him go to Alberta. Penner was shut out in the Oilers' 2-1 shootout win over Vancouver last night and has 19 points in 34 games. With a late kick, the 25-year-old could duplicate the 29-16 -45 he posted last season.
As of now, based solely on their games, there would be takers around the league for Vanek, and perhaps about one-third as many for Penner. But based on their salaries? No one would touch them. Ditto for Brad Richards. And even with DiPietro finally putting up decent numbers, think anyone would be quick to assume the final 13 1/2 years of his pact?
Again, forget it.
Which makes the Philly contract for Mike Richards, though sound in thinking, bad in business. Holmgren was afraid someone could turn Richards into the next Vanek, or Penner, so he went the Brad Richards route. Times twelve! Now we wait to see who'll be the next GM to step so boldly, and blindly, forward.
OK, the Flyers have the kid locked up, and at a fairly tolerable cap hit of $5.75 million per year. But it's not the cap hit that takes the ice these next 12 seasons after 2007-08. Richards is a very good player, with a game much like that played by Patrice Bergeron. A center with grit and smarts, he could play into Peter Forsberg's skates, and if he turns into the next "Foppa" (697 NHL games, 871 points, a pair of Stanley Cups), then Richards will have brought a full return on the investment.
But boy, that is one long reach. He also could fall prey to dialing down his game now that he has all that guaranteed money. Like every player (see: Bergeron and Forsberg), he runs the risk of severe injury. Heck, he could remain what he has been so far, something substantially less than a point-per-game performer, and that's not going to justify that $69 million guarantee.
A dozen years from now, about all we can probably guarantee is that Holmgren no longer will be the Flyers' GM. Sure, he could be . . . but in today's game, with these kinds of contracts, that might be the greatest reach of all.
Last twirl for WalzWes Walz, reached Friday afternoon outside a Minnesota high school awaiting his oldest child to be dismissed for the day, formally retired from the Minnesota Wild Dec. 1.
"Not doing a whole lot," said Walz, the former Bruins forward who wrapped up an impressive pro career in which he became one of the game's top defensive centers. "You know, I'm taking stuff back to
Walz, 37, played his final NHL game Oct. 30. Unhappy with the way he was playing, he requested a brief leave of absence while he pondered his future, and finally called it a career after playing 18 seasons, between the NHL and Europe.
"I wasn't happy with my play the last couple of months last season, to be honest," said Walz, noting he pondered retirement in the offseason. "But I know myself well enough, I just didn't want to be in a situation where I'd regret it the rest of my life, thinking maybe I left while I still had something to offer. But finally, I realized, it was time."
Walz, chosen 57th overall by the Bruins in the 1989 draft, soon arrived on Causeway Street from his Lethbridge (WHL) junior team. But when he didn't immediately fulfill huge expectations, the Bruins dished him to the Flyers, along with Garry Galley, Jan. 2, 1992, for a package that included Gord Murphy, Brian Dobbins, and draft picks (Sergei Zholtok and Charles Paquette).
"Looking back on Boston, I put extra pressure on myself, thinking I had to come in and be the savior," recalled Walz. "A lot of that was my fault. I was probably immature for a 20-year-old, and a bit awestruck, too, with guys like Cam Neely and Ray Bourque there. Don Sweeney, too. They were great, and opened my eyes to what it was like to be a pro. I didn't feel I was living up to expectations that were set for me . . . and it was failing in Boston that made me think if I ever got another chance, I'd make the most of it."
It was a four-year stint playing in Switzerland that truly shaped Walz's game, bringing him to the Wild in 2000-01 full of finish and confidence. Under Jacques Lemaire's tutelage in St. Paul, he played 438 games, sometimes as team captain, and collected 82 goals and 182 points.
"The harder I was playing, the more I felt my game was getting away from me," said Walz. "You know, after working that hard, I just didn't want anyone to have to kick me out. I didn't want to fool anyone. This game's been great to me. Jacques and everyone in Minnesota was great to me. And I had a chance to leave on my own terms."
Recuperating Bergeron ready to take the next stepsPatrice Bergeron is back in town, fresh from his return to Quebec City, where he took a break from sitting around his Boston condo, and tomorrow he'll head to Massachusetts General Hospital to meet with a neurologist.
"I think the trip home did him a lot of good," said Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli, who spoke for a few minutes with Bergeron Thursday night after the 22-year-old pivot took in the Bruins' game at the Garden. "Before, he had that glazed look in his eyes, and now that's cleared up. He was just more animated, you know, talking with every guy as they came in [the players' lounge] after the game. It was good to see. He's doing better."
Bergeron, recovering from a Grade 3 concussion he sustained Oct. 27 when drilled headlong into the end boards by the Flyers' Randy Jones, said last weekend that he remains optimistic about returning this season. Following tomorrow's visit to MGH, said Chiarelli, Bergeron intends to sit down with the training staff in hopes of plotting the first steps of his rehab. Since the hit, which also fractured his nose and left him with severe whiplash, Bergeron's physical activity has been limited to leisurely walks.
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.