Lightning sign Richards to five-year, $39 million deal

TAMPA, Fla. -- The Tampa Bay Lightning began what figures to
be an offseason of change by ensuring their future includes Brad Richards.

The 2004 Stanley Cup playoffs MVP signed a new five-year, $39
million contract instead of opting to become a restricted free
agent on July 1. The $7.8 million average annual salary is more
than twice the $3.4 million he made while leading the Lightning in
scoring this season.

"It shows where this organization is going. It's going to be
around him. He deserves it," coach John Tortorella said.

"There are a lot of contracts out there that I don't think
players deserve. This one here, there's no question as far as what
he's done and what's he going to be able to do because there's
more, and Brad knows that. And I think he's going to reach down and
bring that out within him to carry this organization."

The 26-year-old center is the Lightning's career assists leader
with 261, the third highest total in the NHL over the past five
seasons behind Joe Thornton and Jagomir Jagr. He had 23 goals and
91 points in helping the defending Stanley Cup champions reach the
playoffs again this year.

Tampa Bay was eliminated from the first round by Ottawa in five
games, and talks about a new contract began with Richards' agent,
Pat Morris, the following morning.

As a restricted free agent, Richards would have been able to
receive offer sheets from other teams. Although Tampa Bay would
have had the right to match prospective deals, there was no
guarantee it could have retained its star under the restraints of
the salary cap.

Even more daunting was the prospect of Richards becoming an
unrestricted free agent after next season if he agreed to a
one-year contract, instead of the long-term deal that could keep
him in a Lightning uniform until he's 31.

"Imagine a player of his caliber, his skill and ability going
on the open market at the age of 27," general manager Jay Feaster

"There's never been a question in our mind that Brad is so
important to this franchise. He has stepped up to every challenge
we have ever issued to him."

Richards set an NHL record for game-winning goals in a playoff
year [seven] during the Lightning's Stanley Cup run. He's second on
the team's all-time scoring list with 368 points and fifth with 107

"There's no other place I'd rather be," Richards said, adding
he never gave much consideration to the idea of signing for one
year and becoming an unrestricted free agent in 2007.

"I just thought the best thing for me would be a longer-term
deal. To stick around one or two years to try to cash in didn't
make sense to me. ... There was no 'do this or do that' or hold a
gun to anybody's head. But I wanted to be here."

Now, Feaster will turn his attention to other priorities,
including finding a new goaltender -- most likely through a trade.
He doesn't believe the size of Richards' deal will be a hindrance
to making necessary changes.

"There's no question it's going to be a long, hard summer,"
the general manager said. "But I'm very optimistic about being
able to do what we have to do."