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Kevin Paul Dupont | Hockey Notes

Case of dollars and no sense

Flyers may pay price with Richards deal

MIKE RICHARDS 12-year commitment MIKE RICHARDS 12-year commitment
Email|Print| Text size + By Kevin Paul Dupont
Globe Staff / December 16, 2007

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 Walz

Wes 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 Wal-Mart, changing some diapers [our youngest is only 4 months old] . . . and this year I've got no excuses when it comes to shopping for Christmas presents."

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 steps

Patrice 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.

Etc.

Places, everyone, action
Former Whalers owner Howard Baldwin, a moviemaker in his post-hockey days, has added a New London, Conn., office to his Baldwin Entertainment Group. "In fact, New London is our home office now," Baldwin said when reached Friday afternoon. "We're between LA and here, and part of that is because we'll be making more films here now with the new tax cuts - both here and in Massachusetts." One upcoming project, to be shot in Connecticut next fall, is the Jackie Robinson story, which will feature Robert Redford as Branch Rickey. Baldwin remains hopeful he'll have a script in hand next month for his long-awaited Gordie Howe movie.

Migrating Duck?
Why still so few deals in the NHL, despite an increase in league-wide chatter the last couple of weeks? The logjam could be the generally held belief that general manager Brian Burke will deal Mathieu Schneider off the Ducks' back end now that Scott Niedermayer is back on the beat. Burke signed Schneider for two years, at an annual cap hit of $5.625 million, and isn't likely to keep him around if he can add some scoring pop and trim payroll, too. That way of thinking could be influenced by the Ducks trading Andy McDonald to St. Louis Friday. Schneider to Causeway Street? It's possible, now that what remains of Manny Fernandez's $4.333 million figure is off the books for this season. Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli, on record that he wants to make a deal or two, said he hasn't fixed his focus on defensemen or forwards. And if a deal necessitates cutting into the current roster, he hasn't ruled that out, either.

A hit with Keenan
The sight of Dion Phaneuf pounding teammate Dustin Boyd, a Flames rookie, during a recent practice brought a smile to coach Mike Keenan's face. "Dion doesn't care about nameplate on jerseys," said Keenan. "That's his strength." Phaneuf, only 22, is another young stud headed to restricted free agency July 1. GM Darryl Sutter isn't the kind to write 12-year deals, but it's likely he'll get Phaneuf to ink a five- or six-year pact. Phaneuf loves to hit and looked like a vet with the puck even in his rookie year (somewhat reminiscent of Ray Bourque). Entering last night's games, Phaneuf had 24 points, sixth among all NHL defensemen. His 99 hits also ranked him tied for fifth league-wide, and second only to the Kings' Mike Komisarek (105) for a defenseman.

The ins and outs
Zach Hamill, Boston's top pick in this year's draft, did not make Team Canada's squad for the upcoming World Junior Championships in the Czech Republic. "He had a bit of a slow start," explained Chiarelli. "We thought he'd have a chance at making the team, but . . . he's played very well lately overall." Defenseman Andrew Bodnarchuk, selected 128th in '06, also missed the Team Canada cut. But Brad Marchand will play for Canada, as well as Yuri Alexandrov for Russia. Chiarelli is still debating whether to make the trip, but the likes of Jim Benning, Scott Bradley, and Wayne Smith will be among Boston's evaluators who take in the action.

Loose pucks
The Flyers will start by paying Mike Richards $5.4 million next year, and his top four earning seasons will come in the second trimester of the 12-year pact, when he averages $7.25 million over the four years. His top pay comes in year No. 5, when he earns $8.4 million, $3 million of which is the final balance on a $6.2 million signing bonus. The deal doesn't turn into a no-trade until he turns 27 . . . Last week marked Andy Murray's one-year anniversary behind the Blues' bench. Hard to rate the better swap, Murray taking over from Mike Kitchen or Claude Julien picking up the broken pieces left in the wake of Dave Lewis . . . If the Bolts don't get it going, according to GM Jay Feaster, he'll have little choice but to trim payroll. Well, he can't unload Brad Richards, and even half of Canada's first-born males wouldn't be enough to give up Vincent Lecavalier. The only option would seem to be Martin St. Louis, now with 3 1/2 years left on a deal that counts $5.25 million per annum against the cap. Imagine a Boston tandem of Patrice Bergeron and St. Louis. The ex-UVM star clicked for a career-high 102 points last season . . . There was so much talk about Angelo Esposito leading up to last June's draft, and then he remained on the board until the Penguins took him at No. 20. Worth the wait to join Sidney Crosby & Co. However, Esposito yet again missed the Team Canada cut - the third time he has been denied a trip to the WJC. Tyson Sexsmith, goalie for the Vancouver Giants, former club of Bruins rookie Milan Lucic, also missed the cut . . . Wes Walz on ex-Wild teammate Fernandez, who last week underwent season-ending knee surgery: "Sorry to see that for Manny, but good he's getting it taken care of. He's an excellent goalie. Boston fans will like him when he's back at full strength." Chiarelli said Fernandez will remain in Boston while he rehabs.

Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at dupont@globe.com; material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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