Lightning sign Richards to five-year, $39 million deal

Updated: May 23, 2006, 12:41 AM ET
Associated Press

 Brad Richards
TAMPA, Fla. -- The Tampa Bay Lightning began what figures to be an offseason of change by ensuring their future includes Brad Richards.

The 2004 Stanley Cup playoffs MVP signed a new five-year, $39 million contract instead of opting to become a restricted free agent on July 1. The $7.8 million average annual salary is more than twice the $3.4 million he made while leading the Lightning in scoring this season.

Burnside's take
 Scott Burnside
Good for Tampa Bay GM Jay Feaster to lock up the team's most important player, Brad Richards, to a long-term deal.

That's the kind of bold move that helps solidify the franchise's place in Tampa. That it will cost the Bolts almost $8 million a season for the next five years could be more problematic. Richards may be one of the game's great playmakers, but he doesn't play goal, which is the area that will be crucial to seeing the Lightning return to elite status in 2006-07.

With his three young stars, Richards, Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis, all locked up long term, the speculation is Feaster will have to deal one of them in order to shore up the team's goaltending and keep his team in line with what is expected to be a $43 million cap next season.

The most obvious of the three would be former Hart Trophy and NHL scoring champ St. Louis, who saw his production fall of significantly this season. But Feaster is nothing if not strong-willed, and he won't be bullied into making a move he doesn't like. Watch for Feaster to do some wheeling and dealing, perhaps as early as the draft, and end up with a new netminder and his three young guns still in tow.

-- Scott Burnside

"It shows where this organization is going. It's going to be around him. He deserves it," coach John Tortorella said.

"There are a lot of contracts out there that I don't think players deserve. This one here, there's no question as far as what he's done and what's he going to be able to do because there's more, and Brad knows that. And I think he's going to reach down and bring that out within him to carry this organization."

The 26-year-old center is the Lightning's career assists leader with 261, the third highest total in the NHL over the past five seasons behind Joe Thornton and Jagomir Jagr. He had 23 goals and 91 points in helping the defending Stanley Cup champions reach the playoffs again this year.

Tampa Bay was eliminated from the first round by Ottawa in five games, and talks about a new contract began with Richards' agent, Pat Morris, the following morning.

As a restricted free agent, Richards would have been able to receive offer sheets from other teams. Although Tampa Bay would have had the right to match prospective deals, there was no guarantee it could have retained its star under the restraints of the salary cap.

Even more daunting was the prospect of Richards becoming an unrestricted free agent after next season if he agreed to a one-year contract, instead of the long-term deal that could keep him in a Lightning uniform until he's 31.

"Imagine a player of his caliber, his skill and ability going on the open market at the age of 27," general manager Jay Feaster said.

"There's never been a question in our mind that Brad is so important to this franchise. He has stepped up to every challenge we have ever issued to him."

Richards set an NHL record for game-winning goals in a playoff year [seven] during the Lightning's Stanley Cup run. He's second on the team's all-time scoring list with 368 points and fifth with 107 goals.

"There's no other place I'd rather be," Richards said, adding he never gave much consideration to the idea of signing for one year and becoming an unrestricted free agent in 2007.

"I just thought the best thing for me would be a longer-term deal. To stick around one or two years to try to cash in didn't make sense to me. ... There was no 'do this or do that' or hold a gun to anybody's head. But I wanted to be here."

Now, Feaster will turn his attention to other priorities, including finding a new goaltender -- most likely through a trade. He doesn't believe the size of Richards' deal will be a hindrance to making necessary changes.

"There's no question it's going to be a long, hard summer," the general manager said. "But I'm very optimistic about being able to do what we have to do."

Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press