NEW YORK (AP) - Brad Richards impatiently waited for this day, the day he could finally pick a new team from a whole slew of suitors.
After a day of being wooed by teams around the NHL, Richards chose the one that was the front-runner all along _ the New York Rangers.
Richards, considered the biggest prize in this year’s underwhelming free-agent market, struck it rich Saturday when he agreed to a nine-year, $60 million deal.
“The phone will probably get thrown in a lake later today and we’ll get on with just relaxing,” Richards said. “You have to respect the process but I’m not a person that likes to wait around for something to happen and it’s kind of been like that for 60, 70 days knowing that nothing can happen until July 1.
“You’re kind of in limbo. Your mind doesn’t really relax like it might in a regular summer.”
The 31-year-old center will be reunited with coach John Tortorella, with whom he won the Stanley Cup in 2004 with the Tampa Bay Lightning. He’ll be alongside Marian Gaborik on New York’s revamped top line. The Rangers will likely pick a left winger from within.
After a career-high 28 goals and 49 assists last season with the Dallas Stars, Richards jumped to the head of the free-agent class and was coveted by the Rangers. The Los Angeles Kings and Toronto Maple Leafs also made in-person pitches at the office of his agent, Pat Morris, in Ontario.
The Calgary Flames also made a late push Friday, the first day of the free-agent shopping season, to try to land the Prince Edward Island native.
Tim Leiweke, the chief executive of Anschutz Entertainment Group, which owns the Kings, was part of a group that included general manager Dean Lombardi and several others who went to Canada to meet with Richards. Not even video messages from Wayne Gretzky and Kobe Bryant won over Richards.
“It’s not easy to say no to people,” he said. “The offers being made are very flattering. I am excited to play for one NHL team, let alone having that many options.”
New York stated its case remotely and did enough to lure Richards, despite not offering the most lucrative deal. The Rangers hope Richards can carry them further than their first-round exit of last season.
“You can find a player like this as a free agent or find a player like this in the top five (of the draft) and it takes a long time to develop,” general manager Glen Sather said. “We needed somebody like this to take us to the next step. I think it’s a great opportunity for us. I know he left a lot of money on the table by accepting the offer.”
The Rangers hope Richards will end their search for a center to power their top line and run their often struggling power play. New York thought it filled its hole in the middle four years ago when it signed Chris Drury and Scott Gomez on the first day of free agency, hoping for a good mix with Jaromir Jagr.
It didn’t work.
Gomez was traded just two years into his seven-year, $51.5 million deal, and this week the Rangers bought out the final year of Drury’s contract _ a five-year, $35.25 million pact _ ending the captain’s stay with the team and opening more cap space to squeeze in Richards.
“John Tortorella pushes people to be the best they can be,” Sather said. “We needed to be pushed a little further. I think (Richards) pushes us to the next step. It helps everyone move forward and brings a lot of confidence to the room.”
Richards will occupy $6.66 million of cap space for nine years, although the length of the deal lessens the amount each season. Sather said Richards’ work ethic and condition eliminated his concern about the number of years.
The Rangers have been burned many times on lucrative contracts with veteran players. New York stashed defenseman Wade Redden in the minor leagues all of last season to get his $6.5 million off the cap. Redden still has three years left on his deal.
Richards carries another risk _ he was sidelined for a month last season after a concussion. He was struck in the jaw on a check against Columbus on Feb. 13 and missed 10 games before returning March 9.
“I have been training for six weeks, way ahead of any other training schedule I have been on because I was healthy after the season,” Richards said. “My body felt great, my head felt great, so I got at it pretty quick.
“I know there is a lot of talk about those things, but it’s really in the past.”
Two seasons ago, Richards had 16 goals and 48 points in 55 games before breaking his right wrist when he was checked by Columbus’ Jakub Voracek. He missed 15 games, but a broken left hand against San Jose in his first game back ended his season.
In 11 NHL seasons with Tampa Bay and Dallas, Richards has 220 goals and 496 assists in 772 games. Among active players, Richards is seventh in the NHL over the last two seasons with 1.11 points a game. During his career, Richards ranks 20th at 0.93 points, and 13th in the playoffs with 0.98 points.
Richards had 12 goals and a NHL-best 26 points, seven power-play goals and seven game-winning goals during the 2004 postseason to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP to go with the Lightning’s Stanley Cup title. He was traded to Dallas during the 2007-08 season in a big deal after six-plus seasons with Tampa Bay.
“He just fits. There are things we need within the club and he brings quite a few of those things,” Tortorella said. “At the end of the day, we’re a better hockey club than at the beginning.”
New York was relatively quiet Friday, agreeing to a three-year, $4.5 million deal with former Pittsburgh Penguins forward Mike Rupp, and re-signing forward Ruslan Fedotenko for one year, $1.4 million.
Now that they have secured their biggest target, the Rangers can move to re-sign restricted free agent forwards Ryan Callahan, Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov and Brian Boyle, and restricted defenseman Mike Sauer.
Unrestricted free agent defenseman Matt Gilroy left the Rangers on Saturday after two seasons by agreeing to a deal with the Lightning. New York also traded minor league forward Brodie Dupont, who played one game with the Rangers, to Nashville for right wing Andreas Thuresson. Both players are restricted free agents.
Thuresson has been with Milwaukee of the AHL for most of the past four seasons. In 25 career games for Nashville, including 22 in the 2009-10 season, he has one goal and two assists. Thuresson was pointless in three games last season with the Predators.
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