With the days being crossed off the June calendar as we head to the opening of free agency, we know that the Toronto Maple Leafs have, among their pressing needs, a requirement to get a first line centre for Phil Kessel.
The prevailing wisdom is that the Leafs would be best-served by signing unrestricted free agent Brad Richards, and, why not? Brad Richards is a terrific hockey player who lifts the games of his teammates and has a terrific shot, is effective on the powerplay and has won a Conn Smythe Trophy to boot after a terrific playoff run with the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2004.
However, there are two potential turn-offs:
#1 — Brad Richards is 31 years old and has not played 82 games in a season since 2007. He had 91 points in 80 games two seasons ago and 77 in 72 in the season he just came off.
#2 — Brad Richards is regarded to be the best UFA centreman on the market, so his cost will likely be higher than his value. For a rebuilding team, particularly the Maple Leafs, who are forced to eat a lot of money on lengthy, expensive deals to defensemen, it is not in the team’s best interest to overpay their forward corps and get stuck in the same rut. Considering the value Brian Burke got out of Mikhail Grabovski, Clarke MacArthur and Nikolai Kulemin on the second line last season, he may be better off finding more “diamonds in the rough” and build the team a little less conventionally.
In analyzing the numbers among centremen who played over 50 games this season, the name that popped up that is similar to Brad Richards in the way he was used by his team. This is Brooks Laich of the Washington Capitals. Laich was a 2nd line centreman although started an identical percentage of his shifts (53.5%) in the offensive zone as opposed to the defensive zone. While it is to be expected playing alongside better teammates in Washington (his teammates averaged a 2.6 relative Corsi rating compared to Richards’ minus-3.2. This means that Laich’s teammates could be counted on for about 6 more shot attempts per 60 minutes than Richards’) Laich would be available for half the cost.
Laich had 16 goals last season shooting at just 7.7%. His on-ice shooting percentage at even strength was just 8.06% compared to Richard’s 10.7%. 67% of his points came at even strength to Richard’s 62%. With the same on-ice shooting percentage as Brad Richards, you could get 40 even strength points out of Brooks Laich. Placed in the right offensive situation (first line minutes with Kessel and Joffrey Lupul plus first line powerplay minutes) with the percentages tilting in his favour, 70 points is not too much of a stretch.
He isn’t the attractive superstar, but he’s a valuable commodity and will improve whichever team he signs with, at a price that won’t break the bank.