You've all heard it by now. Rumors are swirling that the Lightning are accepting offers for star center Brad Richards and will soon present to him the cities that have made bids in the hopes he will waive his no-trade clause. Columbus, Dallas, and Vancouver are all supposedly the frontrunners for Richards' services as the Lightning, supposedly, are hell bent on shedding Richards' $7.8 million dollar contract.
I feel sick to my stomach, and so does every single member of the Lightning fan base I've talked to.
In the post lockout world the Lightning made a strategic move to lock up their core players to big contracts: Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis, Dan Boyle, and Brad Richards. Although they have been constantly lambasted for following that path, time has borne out that the Lightning were right to do so. As Ryan Dixon pointed out on his blog for The Hockey News, many NHL teams have followed the Lightning in investing heavily in locking up their core players. Several teams, like Detroit, have tied up even more money than the Lightning have in just a handful of players. While the hockey media has waved the bloody shirt about the Lightning's cap management, the truth is the Lightning were merely the first to embrace the realities of the new CBA. So lets get that out of the way right now: there's nothing wrong with what the Lightning did in locking up their core. Where they went wrong was in picking complimentary pieces like Marc Denis that haven't worked out. And then, of course, there's the little matter of Dan Boyle dropping a skate on his wrist.
So time and the rest of the league's moves have proven Jay Feaster was right to invest in his stars and yet, still, we have an amazing crisis in faith playing out right now in which the Lightning seem hell bent to abandon the principles they've built this franchise on for the past half a decade to try to become "cheaper and deeper". Worse still, they seem eager to do so by not only trading one of their core players, but by trading one of THE core players of this franchise. As early as the 2002-2003 season it became clear that Vincent Lecavalier and Brad Richards formed the axis around which the whole future of the Tampa Bay Lightning would revolve. They won a Cup, two division titles, and made four straight playoff appearances together. Now, if Richards leaves, do the Lightning really have a future?
What the Lightning ought to be doing is trading off just about every other piece of the puzzle but Brad Richards. In dealing off players like Prospal, Gratton, Kuba, Holmqvist, the team could free up around $8 million dollars in payroll. Spending that $8 million dollars (to say nothing of the money that could be saved by buying out Marc Denis, and dealing off lesser pieces like Ryan Craig and Jason Ward before next season) more wisely around Lecavalier and Richards is the way that the Lightning should proceed.
The other myth that needs to be squashed is that the Lightning are right up against the cap because of the money that the team has invested in their star players. The Lightning aren't up against the cap, they're up against (and slightly over) a Bill Davidson, PS&E imposed budget of $45 million dollars. That's well below the salary cap. When word spread that Oren Koules, a former hockey player characterized as a Mark Cuban type owner who would spare no expense to win, was about to buy the team it appeared likely the team's budget would expand to allow more money to build around the core. However, with Koules apparently deeply involved in this Richards deal that appears less and less likely.
Don't get me wrong, I understand Koules is in the process of having to pull off a $200 million dollar purchase of this franchise. I'm sure his accountants are probably telling him that spending $40-45 million dollars on payroll is the only way this works. But let me make this clear to Oren Koules: if that's the rationale behind trading Brad Richards, you sir are being penny wise and pound foolish. Setting this franchise back a half a decade by auctioning off one of its franchise cornerstones to the lowest bidder will doom this franchise to more years of missing the playoffs and missing those all important playoff gate receipts. That, in kind, will lead to a dwindling season ticket base and apathy, and deep bitterness, from a fan base that will rightfully feel burned that the core of a very good team was broken up as a business rather than a hockey decision.
Here at the eleventh hour there is still time for cooler heads to prevail. Oren Koules can still decide to live up to the mantle of franchise savior by keeping the core group together and doing the right thing.
Sometimes the best trades are the ones that aren't made.
Oren Koules, this is your first test as owner of the Tampa Bay Lightning. We're all watching and hoping you show the wisdom to do the right thing. Prove to us that this team will guided by hockey decisions, not business decisions, and that you are a man deeply committed to winning. Be the kind of owner this fanbase wants and desperately needs you to be.