<
>

Brad Richards can't avoid talk of future

TORONTO -- It was as big a media scrum as Brad Richards had seen all season, not that he didn't expect it.

"It's a different feeling in the morning to come in here and there's more media than players in your locker room, you know you're in Toronto," smiled the Dallas Stars center.

The question is whether or not he'll be talking to those same media members from the home dressing room next season. An unrestricted free agent July 1, it goes without saying the Toronto Maple Leafs -- devoid of a No. 1 center -- almost surely will be calling veteran agent Pat Morris of Newport Sports within the first minute of free agency and inquiring about Richards, by far the most notable center available on the market next summer.

"If the time comes and that's the situation, Toronto is always a No. 1 hockey destination," Richards said after the pregame skate at Air Canada Centre. "It would be great being a Canadian and playing in Toronto, but we're not even close to that bridge yet. I'm focused here [on the Stars] and I have so much respect for [GM] Joe Nieuwendyk. To even talk about other teams is not being fair. My commitment is to try and make the playoffs here with this team."

And that's exactly where it gets complicated for the Stars. If they are in a playoff spot come the Feb. 28 trade deadline, can they really afford to move Richards, their best player? Perhaps if the package in return sets the team up for the next five years, it's something to think about for a Stars team that needs serious help on the blue line.

Nieuwendyk, a source told ESPN.com Monday, is not even considering any trade calls for Richards at this point. But he knows come February he'll have to make a decision, one that will balance this season's needs against the long-term benefits.

Either way, the situation with Richards is a little more complicated than your prototypical UFA-to-be star player.

For starters, the uncertainty around ownership is the biggest factor right now. Until the Stars have a new owner in place, they can't even entertain the thought of approaching Richards with an extension. And certainly if there remains ownership instability come June, Richards is a goner. Ownership issues have followed him to Tampa and Dallas and he's tired of that game. The top of his criteria on July 1 would be signing with a club that has big-time stability.

That obviously screams Toronto, but also potentially the New York Rangers or the Los Angeles Kings. The Rangers, like the Leafs, need a bona fide No. 1 center, and it just so happens that they are coached by John Tortorella, Richards' old bench boss from Tampa -- and the two remain friends. The Kings? I mentioned in my weekend blog that if Jarome Iginla is not available, other names that could interest them included Patrik Elias or Jamie Langenbrunner but yes, a name I forgot to include is that of Richards. While the Kings' major need is for a game-breaking winger, the versatile Richards could still fit the bill since he has played wing before. And besides, I'm sure the Kings could make room for him at center, too. Richards wants to win, and the Kings are as good a place to be as any in the league.

Toronto, New York and L.A.-- if I'm handicapping the field for Richards on July 1, that's where I start. In the case of the Rangers and Kings, they might even be willing to pony up before Feb. 28 instead of waiting for July 1. The Kings have the most cap space of any Cup contender.

But again, that depends on where the Stars are in the standings come February ... lots of dynamics in play here.

In Richards, you're getting a dynamic offensive force who also plays the point on the power play, is responsible defensively, and clutch in big games as underlined by his Conn Smythe Trophy in 2004. This is also why Niewendyk's top priority is to try to re-sign him once he has new ownership.

Nieuwendyk met with Richards last week to chat about the uncertainty of his situation, and Richards has huge respect for the way Nieuwendyk is handling all this.

"I'm not going to lie to you, the situation is what it is," Richards said. "It's not something that Joe and I haven't talked about. The situation isn't ideal for the time being to stay in Dallas or re-sign, but obviously we're open about talking about it and giving new ownership a chance to come in. I'm a Dallas Star and that's where my focus is right now."

Richards thinks about it, but doesn't stress too much. He's got a no-movement clause.

"I'm in total control of what happens so I sleep well at night knowing that," Richards said. "It would be different if I didn't have control and you'd be wondering every day if you'd be traded every day or not. Joe and I have talked about everything. At this point there's no trade. We're trying to make the playoffs."

Will he finish the season as a Star? Richards paused.

"That's a tough question. I have no idea."