Commentary

Why Richards' 12-year pact isn't all that shocking

Updated: December 17, 2007, 4:50 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

Just wondering where all the howls of derision were when the Philadelphia Flyers announced last week that they had signed third-year center Mike Richards to a 12-year, $69 million contract extension.

That's pretty good job security for a player who just established a career-best 14 goals. When the New York Islanders became a league laughingstock when they signed netminder Rick DiPietro to a 15-year deal coming out of the lockout, at least he had won a playoff game and established himself as a capable goaltender, if not an elite one.

[+] EnlargeMike Richards
Len Redkoles/NHLI/Getty ImagesMike Richards has 15 goals and 23 assists in 31 games this season for the Flyers.

Richards has one point in six playoff games for the Flyers.

For the record, we think the world of Richards. What's not to like? He's emerged this season as one of the game's most dynamic two-way players. He wins important draws. He kills penalties. He scores timely goals. He runs the team's top power-play unit like a seasoned veteran. If you had to pick Canada's Olympic team right now, he'd be on it.

And if this is indicative of what Richards' career is going to be like, GM Paul Holmgren has eliminated one gigantic headache for the next dozen years and he might have put to rest a crucial piece to the Flyers' long unfinished Stanley Cup puzzle.

Richards, who has 38 points in 31 games and is averaging 21:28 in ice time, was something of a disappointment during his first two seasons in the NHL. The 24th overall pick in the 2003 draft had just 21 goals over that span, although injury did limit him to 59 games in 2006-07. Still, his emergence this season has been one of the interesting story lines of the first half.

But less than half a season is a pretty short testing period on which to base a 12-year contract. Still, no one batted an eye when the deal was signed. Why? Because that's the new NHL. Identify the young core of your team, and then roll the dice and lock them up to as long a term as you can possibly manage.

Then hope you're not wrong.

Imagine how the Montreal Canadiens would look if they'd locked Michael Ryder into a Richards-like deal. They could have. The pride of Bonavista, Newfoundland, recorded 25, 30 and 30 goals in his first three seasons, but has fallen off the map in 2007-08 with just three goals. The winger has been a healthy scratch and will almost certainly be dealt before the trade deadline.

In the old NHL, GMs mostly gambled by paying free agents for what they had accomplished in the past but commanded top dollar nonetheless. Doug Gilmour, Bobby Holik, Eric Lindros -- take your pick of players who earned millions of dollars despite having little left in the tank. That was the day when rich teams could afford to take that kind of gamble to flush out a potential contender. It was only money, right?

Now, GMs must focus their attention on the future, knowing that if they don't, another GM will be happy to play that game with their assets. Dustin Penner doesn't look like much of a bargain at $21.25 million over five years, but it's early. The Edmonton Oilers, who signed Penner to an offseason offer sheet (sparking a feud with Anaheim GM Brian Burke) still hope he will pan out. The Buffalo Sabres are probably wondering whether the seven-year, $50 million deal they gave Thomas Vanek after the Oilers presented him with an offer sheet will turn out to be a mistake.

The Flyers are starting from several rungs up the ladder with Richards, but they've pushed the envelope with the 12-year deal. The problem is, if Richards doesn't continue to evolve or hits a wall, 12 years is going to seem like an eternity even if his cap hit is only $5.75 million. But that's the gamble, isn't it?

If Holmgren had been more cautious and inked a five- or six-year deal with Richards, who most assume will soon wear the captain's C in Philly, he might have had to renegotiate at close to twice that cap hit.

Maybe the best barometer for the Richards deal is the fact that few eyebrows were raised. Now maybe we should just call up Isles GM Garth Snow and owner Charles Wang and offer our most heartfelt apologies.

Slap Shots


Souray

Good Week
It wasn't that long ago when we referred to the Edmonton Oilers as the worst team in the NHL. They were. And before the season ends, they may again be described as such. But surprise, surprise! The youthful Oilers have won three in a row and have points in four straight games for the first time this season. Edmonton has been buoyed by the return of free-agent acquisition Sheldon Souray (one goal, two assists and more than 25 minutes a night in ice time in three games since returning from injury), solid goaltending from Mathieu Garon and a machine-like ability to score shootout goals. Their shootout win over Vancouver on Saturday was their 10th of the season, giving them by far the best shootout record in the NHL (10-1). The Oilers' banner week, in which they tied for the final playoff spot in the West, coincided with word that Edmonton pharmacy mogul Daryl Katz has come up with an offer to buy the team.

Bad Week
Hello, McSimon. Anyone home? Apparently not. New York Islanders forward Chris Simon once again proved that no matter how many chances a players is given to change, you cannot be anything other than what you are. And in Simon's case, that means being an unthinking thug. Expect Simon to be suspended for the seventh time in his career after stomping on Jarkko Ruutu's foot with his own skate in Saturday's 3-2 loss to Pittsburgh. Simon was assessed a match penalty for intent to injure. Ruutu, one of the game's agitators, may have oversold the skate chop, but the fact of the matter is Simon deliberately stepped on Ruutu's foot after falling near the two team benches late in the game. Your team is down a goal, you've already been given a chance at redemption after last season's stick attack on Ryan Hollweg that cost you 25 games and this is the message Simon's brain sends to his body? Brilliant.

Stuck in Neutral
Looking for mediocrity (or parity)? Look no further than the Eastern Conference. As of Monday morning, four of the conference's top eight teams -- Carolina, Montreal, Philadelphia and the New York Rangers -- were all .500 or worse in their past 10 games.

Our top story lines of the week


Perezhogin
1. Always love the stories about rival leagues that will somehow usurp the NHL as the world's finest purveyor of hockey action. This time, it's former NHLPA executive director Bob Goodenow and a mega-millionaire Russian businessman who are setting to beat the NHL at its own game, mostly in Russia. It all makes sense given that Goodenow has been banished to the equivalent of Siberia since being ousted by Ted Saskin during the lockout.

But in terms of starting some sort of super-Euro league, the same issues will present themselves whenever they get around to seriously talking expansion some time in the next century. What do you do with the dozens of historic, well-entrenched teams there already? Take a hike Moscow Dynamo or Red Army? How would you like to be a junior team, Sparta Praha?

As for drawing top players away from the NHL, the Russian super league has been trying to do that since withdrawing from the IIHF transfer agreement, claiming it wanted more money for its players. Sure, it offers a significant pay jump for mediocre players who can't get a foothold in the NHL, but name the best player to bolt the NHL for lovely Russia. Is it Alexander Perezhogin, who had a whopping six goals in 61 games for Montreal last season? Or what about Alexei Kaigorodov, who bolted from Ottawa last season when he didn't want to play in the AHL and is tearing it up for Metallurg Magnitogorsk with four goals in his first 34 games? Next.

2. You have to feel a bit bad for Andy McDonald, who was sacrificed for Scott Niedermayer last week. The Anaheim Ducks dealt the talented center to St. Louis for veteran Doug Weight to clear up cap room so Niedermayer could rejoin the team. McDonald was the poster boy for the Ducks' scouting staff. Undrafted out of Colgate, McDonald was a key part of Anaheim teams that went to the Western Conference finals in 2006 and won the team's first Cup last summer.

But at $3.33 million annually over the next two seasons, McDonald was deemed expendable on the ledger sheet. Neither McDonald nor Weight is having a particularly stellar season. McDonald had just four goals through 33 games, although he did have a goal and an assist in his debut with the Blues. Weight had four goals in 29 games with the Blues, but they represent different things to each of their new teams.

Burke is hoping Weight can add some desperately needed secondary scoring, but will disappear at the end of the season. McDonald, meanwhile, looks to be another solid piece of a rebuilding Blues team. The way things are going, these teams may be in a life-and-death struggle to make the playoffs. It will be interesting to see which team benefits most from the deal in the short term, not to mention down the road.

3. Guess Philadelphia coach John Stevens forgot to take his irony pills this week. Even if it was true the Pittsburgh Penguins became unraveled and undisciplined at the end of their 8-2 beating at the hands of Stevens' Flyers, don't you think Stevens would have held his tongue? He is, after all, the coach of a team that's had five players suspended so far this season and has been put on double-secret probation by the NHL for its lack of self-control. But there was Stevens, acting all sanctimonious after the game, decrying the Pens' lack of self-control. That must have been about the same time one of his "in-control" Flyers, Ben Eager, managed to saunter by the Penguins' dressing room to suggest that Pens coach Michel Therrien is "a joke."

4. Better send that Jack Adams Award back to the shop and have them file off Don Waddell's name. It may have been a tad premature to anoint the Atlanta GM as coach of the year. While the Atlanta Thrashers made a surprising jump back into the Eastern Conference fray after Waddell fired coach Bob Hartley, they seem to have reached their own level once again. The Thrashers lost four straight games last week and were outscored 26-11 over that period. They have won just three times in their past 11 games and, as of Monday morning, were just one point out of the conference basement. Can anyone say Marian Hossa sweepstakes?

5. Just when you're tempted to completely disregard the Phoenix Coyotes, Wayne Gretzky's hard-working young squad jumps back into the picture as if to remind the rest of the league that it's still around. The Coyotes did just that this past weekend, beating both the red-hot New Jersey Devils and the slumping New York Rangers. The return to Madison Square Garden on Sunday was Gretzky's first trip as coach and he marked it with a 5-1 win. After beating New Jersey 4-1 the day before, the Coyotes are suddenly just one game below .500 and five points out of the West's last playoff berth.

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.