When Brad Richards was a big name UFA two summers ago, I remember writing that it was a “chase” I was very glad that the Maple Leafs did not win. The Leafs were clearly interested and as I recall made a big-time contract offer (maybe bigger than other teams, though not on term) but were rebuffed.
Why was I not enthused about signing Richards?
It was pretty simple: as fine a player as he had been, including being a key member of the 2004 Tampa Bay Stanley Cup team, I wrote that, even though he was only 30 or 31 at the time, he had a lot of wear on his hockey tires (especially in the playoffs), and I did not see that getting better in the years ahead.
I would have been much more enthusiastic about acquiring a young Brad Richards, rather than paying silly money for a guy whose best hockey may be in the rear-view mirror.
Seeing that Richards was a healthy scratch for Game 4 (and Game 5, too) of the Ranger-Bruin series simply reinforced that my misgivings two years ago were maybe not entirely off base. I’m not, by the way, suggesting that Richards has been a bad player with the Rangers. The effort is still there. But for Tortorella to make this kind of decision, well, there are reasons, clearly. He had seen Richards up close in the player's hey-day in Tampa. Something had changed.
While it may have been jarring for some to see the Rangers play (instead of Richards) guys making a fraction of what the veteran winger does in “must-win” elimination games, it was not a shock, really. Richards has been a tremendous player, but most NHL'ers don’t get better in their 30s. Some may, but it’s pretty rare. It seems to be especially the case nowadays, given the pace of the way the game is played.
So for me, the Richards saga is just a gentle reminder for Dave Nonis and the Leaf brass that a mad rush to sign big-game free-agents is not always “the answer”.
What was the best signing the Leafs made last summer? Arguably, it was the quick move on the first day of free-agency to sign a third-line player most Leaf fans (myself included), if they were honest, barely knew was in the league: Jay McClement. The veteran center brought maturity, tenacity, a strong work ethic and a professionalism that obviously enhanced the Leaf roster this past season. Was he a difference-maker? I would argue that he was, in that he not only was a strong defensive player who finished his checks and did the little things well, but he helped to completely overhaul what had been a dreadful Leaf penalty-kill in recent years.
Now, can you win just buy signing a series of McClement-type players? Not likely. You need high-end talent, too, preferably high-end talent with heart and character—and experience. (Richards had all those qualities two years ago, yes, but at a price that was not a wise long-term investment…)
I would say that the Leafs’ “needs” at this stage in their development are pretty apparent even to we mere uninformed fans. They need a true first-line center (this is a recording…); they require a stud defenseman (where do these grow?) and while I would make the case that they have gone a ways toward becoming “team tough”—something I’ve written about extensively here—they still have to do something to add real experience to the roster. I’m talking about the kind of players who can close the deal in big games in the spring—something that didn’t happen in Boston on that fateful Game 7 night a couple of weeks ago.
I like the arc the team is on, and believe that Nonis knows what he “needs”. (That is different, of course, from being to actually execute the “plan”.) For his part, Carlyle just finished a short year of experimentation, and because he tried a lot of people in different slots, he should have a very good sense of what he needs to do going forward to get this team closer to what he wants it to be. He still doesn’t have the roster he wants (I’m sure most coaches don’t) but he demonstrated that—albeit with some flaws and warts in evidence—he could still guide the team to some degree of success. And he very nearly led them to what would have been a stunning first-round upset of the Bruins. They came a lot closer than the Rangers did.
All this said, I don't think we can just wait for the “kids” to gain on-the-job experience. As important as it is to build with your own youngsters, good organizations also have to find and attract “winners”, like the Leafs did with Gary Roberts many years ago. You need experience. You need leadership. (And some would have argued two years ago that Brad Richards would have been a perfect fit for the blue and white. And I can understand the thinking. That’s what makes these managerial decisions so difficult. Sometimes what looks like a great idea, in retrospect, isn’t. )
At the end of the day, when push came to shove in the playoffs, the Leafs did not have what it took to close the deal in the playoffs against Boston. They lacked the confidence to finish the Bruins off. It wasn’t just skill, though that is always part of it. But they lacked the leadership and proven playoff experience. (Again, this should not have been a surprise- we talked about it here at VLM a fair bit, that the Leafs did not have playoff leadership in place yet. In fairness, many fans did not even expect the Leafs to make the playoffs. But once there, expectations from the fan base suddenly rose, making the early exit all the more bitter…)
All this said, the team did gain invaluable playoff experience against Boston. They may well have seen what it takes to advance. The obvious challenge now is finding the right pieces to add. (Or at least what turn out to be the right pieces.) Brad Richard has proven, it seems, to be the wrong choice for the Rangers, as good a professional as he has been throughout his career.
When it comes to players the Leafs might look to trade for or sign in free-agency, I don’t know “who” should be on the Leafs' radar. That’s Nonis’ job. But now that the roster is where it is, the next few added pieces will be absolutely huge in determining if the Leafs become just another decent team that, sure, makes the playoffs but doesn’t go anywhere, or a team that becomes a true contender. I sense we’re on the cusp of becoming something.
Exactly how we do find the right pieces - and attract the "right" kind of veteran at the right price (either in terms of cap impact or loss of young assets) - will be crucial. The Richards/Rangers marriage is yet another example that not all signings of "high-propfile" elite players are the right fit for a given organization, even when it feels right at the time. With Richards and Rick Nash in place, I'm sure the Rangers believed they had the roster to win it all. They didn't.
Adding high-end skill, leadership and experience always sounds like a good idea. And it generally is the thing to do. I talk about it here often. But somehow a GM has to, again, find the right player to fit his team's situation. Though the Richards experiment did not work out on Broadway, we all know that the Rangers were trying to make something happen. It just didn't work. Maybe it was the right idea, but not quite the right player? (And on that note, I wouldn't be surprised if a number of teams were interested, if the Rangers buy Richards out this summer- and maybe they'll be "right" in signing him...who knows?)
Which leads me to my question for the day: when it comes to the task of finding the right pieces to the Leaf roster puzzle, do you think Nonis is the guy to find what we need to get us that next (truly elite) level?