FROM THE CREASE with BRUCE BERLET

bruce mug shot 1BY: Bruce Berlet

The New York Rangers plucked the cream of the free agency crop, Dallas Stars center Brad Richards, via a nine-year, $60 million contract with an annual cap hit of $6.5 million.

Richards will receive $24 million in the first two years and $57 over the first six, leaving him a nice “retirement” package of $1 million in the final three years of the deal. The $6.5 million hit is $500,000 less than what Trumbull native and former captain/center Chris Drury was scheduled to receive before being bought out last week.

Richards chose the Rangers over five other teams, including the Toronto Maple Leafs and Los Angeles Kings that actually offered more money. But the 31-year-old Richards, who is expected to be on a line with right wing Marian Gaborik, said there were a lot of reasons why he decided to rejoin coach John Tortorella for whom he played when he earned the Conn Smyth Award as playoff MVP after leading the Tampa Bay Lightning to their only Stanley Cup in 2004.

“Obviously, at the end of the day, all the offers I was looking at were good,” Richards said. “To play on an Original Six team, I haven’t had a chance to do that yet in my career. Stable ownership, which is something that’s kind of bitten me a couple of times, especially in Tampa, where we had a good thing going, and it tore apart really quick. I felt the same thing in Dallas, where we had a good, young team starting to do some things. It just handcuffs you.

“To be with an Original Six team, which is very special as a hockey player, to play for, and to see an owner who is committed to do whatever it takes to win, and obviously what (president and general manager) Glen (Sather) and (Tortorella) are doing. I see what Torts does, and it works. I know that first-hand. I see how he’s bringing that young team along, and it kind of reminds me of what he did with us (in Tampa). Factor all that in together, at the end of the day, it was the right fit for me.”

Sather said Gaborik was “very excited” about the signing of Richards after suffering through an injury-plagued season in which he never got settled with linemates while scoring only 22 goals, which was 22 fewer than in his first season with the Rangers.

“(Gaborik) is the kind of player that shouldn’t be handling the puck an awful lot,” Sather said. “He’s the kind of player that should be getting in and out of holes, with somebody giving him the puck at the right time. There’s sort of a sixth sense that players like this have, and if you watch Brad play, he possesses this, and there’s not very many players that have it.

“I was fortunate to have a couple of guys that I coached in my career, and Brad has the same sightlines on the ice. He seems to know where everyone is all of the time, and he seems to find them with the pass at the right moment. Marian’s the kind of player that gets into those holes and you just give him the puck at the right time. It’s a bit of a struggle for those players.

“I think Marian got hurt right at the beginning of the season last year, separated his shoulder, and it set him back a little bit. That’s not to say he had a poor year. He worked through what he had, he played hard. I just think this is going to make him a much better player.”

Richards admitted the pressure in New York would be challenging, different and hopefully rewarding.

“If you want to be a good player or a great player, it’s something you should relish, and what better place to perform than Madison Square Garden?” Richards said. “That’s a dream come true, really. You can look at it in 100 different ways, but I’m looking at it as a great experience and at a time of my career where I really want a chance to win again.

“It’s been too long. This will just motivate me even more. I find it easier, probably. There will be some tough days when things don’t go right, but I find it easier to go to the rink every night when you know that type of atmosphere and those type of fans are behind you.”

Tortorella said Richards fills two of the Rangers’ five major needs, an elite center and someone to run the power play. He also sees Richards as mentor for the Rangers’ many young players, most of whom have played in Hartford, led by forwards Ryan Callahan, Brandon Dubinsky and Artem Anisimov and defensemen Marc Staal, Dan Girardi, Michael Sauer and Ryan McDonagh.

“We’ve got some guys right on the cusp of really understanding what it is to be a pro,” Tortorella said. “I think we’re still learning what we have to do in the playoffs, moving along in that situation. Richie has done that. So, forget what the stats are. It’s some of the mentoring and teaching kids what it is to be a pro. That’s very important, and he really fits the bill there.”

The Rangers also signed rugged left wing/center Michael Rupp and re-signed left wing Ruslan Fedotenko, which led to the trade of Whale left wing/center Brodie Dupont to the Nashville Predators for forward Andreas Thuresson. The Rangers also have re-signed Whale wings Dale Weise and Chad Kolarik and defenseman Blake Parlett and picked up the option year on defenseman Jared Nightingale.

Sather said he is now focused on re-signing Callahan, Dubinsky, Anisimov, Sauer and center Brian Boyle in the next few weeks. They received qualifying offers of $2.4 million, $2 million, $832,000, $550,000 and $605,000, with Callahan and Dubinsky looking for deals in the $4 million range. Callahan, Dubinsky, Sauer and Boyle filed for salary arbitration on the Tuesday deadline, and hearings will be held late this month or in early August. But there is no reason for fans to panic. Deals are usually reached before hearings, as happened with Callahan in 2009, when he filed and then signed a two-year deal worth $2.2 million and $2.4 million. The filings trigger a second buyout period in August for the Rangers, who could look to get out of wing Wojtek Wolski’s $3.8 million salary for next season.

If Callahan, Dubinsky, Anisimov, Sauer, Boyle and possibly Vinny Prospal are signed, it would leave few, if any, openings for more young players on Broadway. But Sather insisted the top-end players in Hartford such as Weise, Kolarik, centers Kris Newbury and newly re-signed John Mitchell and late-season addition Carl Hagelin will be given a legitimate shot when training camp opens Sept. 15.

“We think we’ve got some kids that are right on the cusp of making the hockey club, and we don’t want to eliminate opportunities for them,” Sather said. “That’s why we just finished a week of a rookie camp with our draft picks, and we’re going to have another week in Traverse City where we bring a lot of our prospects again. Then we have our big camp in New York. So there’s all kinds of opportunity, and the philosophy that we have is if you’re a rookie, you’re a young guy, you come in here and take somebody’s job, we’ll find a place for you to play with the New York Rangers.”

Regardless of what happens, nhl.com senior writer Dan Rosen rated the Rangers’ signings and trades second best in the NHL to those of the Capitals, who added goalie Tomas Vokoun for the bargain basement price of $1.5 million after he earned $6.3 million with the Florida Panthers last season, traded goalie Semyon Varlamov to the Colorado Avalanche for a first-round pick in 2012 and a second-rounder in 2012 or 2013, re-signed forward Brooks Laich for six years and $27 million, acquired defenseman and former Stanley Cup winner Troy Brouwer from the Chicago Blackhawks and signed wing Joel Ward, defenseman Roman Hamrlik and center Jeff Halpern. Rosen also liked what the Buffalo Sabres, Los Angeles Kings and Columbus Blue Jackets did. He wasn’t enamored with the work of the New Jersey Devils, Ottawa Senators, Avalanche, Islanders and Blackhawks.

Meanwhile, Jeff Gorton has been named Rangers assistant general manager, leaving Jim Schoenfeld with the titles of assistant coach and Whale GM. Gorton had been assistant GM with the Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins, with his major accomplishments being the signing of standout defenseman/captain Zdeno Chara and acquiring goalie Tuukka Rask for Andrew Raycroft. Gorton was interim GM for five months before being replaced by current GM Peter Chiarelli. Gorton also led the Bruins’ 2006 draft, which landed them Phil Kessel, Milan Lucic and Brad Marchand.

GRUMET-MORRIS QUALIFIED BY GREENVILLE

Goalie Dov Grumet-Morris, the Whale MVP last season as voted by his teammates, didn’t receive a qualifying offer from the Rangers by the June 30 deadline, but he was one of eight players qualified by the Whale’s ECHL affiliate, the Greenville Road Warriors, on Tuesday.

Despite spending about half the season in the AHL, Grumet-Morris was named to the ECHL All-Star second team.

The Road Warriors also qualified forwards Marc-Olivier Vallerand, who led the team in goals (28) and represented Greenville in the ECHL All-Star Game after skating in Whale training camp, Sean Berkstresser, Andrew Carroll, Brendan Connolly and Justin Bowers and defensemen Wes Cunningham, named to the All-ECHL first team, and Julien Brouillette.

Players who had already signed a contract by July 1 did not need to receive a qualifying offer.

Each ECHL team was entitled to reserve the rights to a maximum of eight qualified players, though no more than four could be veterans (260 regular-season pro games played as of the start of the 2011-12 season). Players on open qualifying offers cannot be traded.

The qualifying offer must remain open for acceptance until Aug. 1, when it becomes null and void and the team may sing the qualified play to any salary or elect to take no further action. Teams that extend a valid qualifying off to a non-veteran player shall retain the rights to that qualified player for one playing season.

A team that extends a qualifying offer to a veteran player will retain the rights to that veteran until Aug. 1. After Aug. 1, if the veteran player is not signed to a contract, he shall be deemed a restricted free agent and be entitled to seek and secure offers from other ECHL team. Restricted free agents may not be traded. When a restricted free agent receives a contract offer from a team other than the team with the player’s rights and the restricted free agent wishes to accept the offer, the restricted free agent and the offering member must, within 24 hours, notify the ECHL, the team with the player’s right and the Professional Hockey Players’ Association. The member with the player’s right shall have seven days after the date it is notified to exercise its right to match the contract offer.

If a restricted free agent is not signed to either an offer sheet or a contract by an ECHL team by Aug. 31, he shall be deemed an unrestricted free agent.

CHRIS BOURQUE REJOINS CAPITALS

After playing in Russia and Switzerland last season, left wing Chris Bourque, son of Hockey Hall of Famer Ray Bourque, has signed a one-year, two-day deal with the Capitals for whom he played for five seasons after being their second-round pick in 2004.

Chris, a second-round pick in 2004, played with the AHL’s Portland Pirates and Hershey Bears before being called up by the Capitals in 2008, scoring his first NHL goal on Dec. 30 against the Buffalo Sabres. He was claimed off waivers by the Pittsburgh Penguins on Sept. 30, 2009 and recorded his first NHL assist on Oct. 28 in a 6-1 win over the Montreal Canadiens. It was one of three assists he had in 20 games before being waived and reclaimed by the Capitals. He was assigned back to Hershey, where he remained for the majority of the season and helped the Bears win a second consecutive Calder Cup as he led the league in scoring with 27 postseason points to win the Jack A. Butterfield Trophy as playoff MVP.

Chris’ younger brother, Ryan, recently signed an entry-level deal with the Rangers and is expected to make his pro debut with the Whale this fall. He was the Rangers’ third-round pick in 2009 and excelled for the Quebec Remparts of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League last season when he had career highs in goals (26), assists (33) and points (59) in 49 regular-season games and then added five goals and 11 assists in 19 playoff games. He signed a three-year, entry-level deal on March 16.

Bourque’s junior coach was one of his father’s longtime NHL rivals, Patrick Roy, the Hall of Fame goalie for the Montreal Canadiens and a teammate of Ray’s on the Avalanche’s 2001 Stanley Cup championship team. Ryan and Chris were on the ice the night their father was the first player to receive the Stanley Cup from Joe Sakic, a classy move by the Avalanche captain considering Bourque had been with the team only a few months. But it was a show of respect for Ray’s two decades of outstanding play with the Bruins, who never won pro hockey’s Holy Grail despite the effort of their longtime captain. It also was a lot of fun for Ryan to play in Verdun, Quebec, in the same arena where his father played in the QMJHL for the Verdun Black Hawks.

GIROUX SIGNS WITH BLUE JACKETS

Hartford-area fans could see plenty of former Wolf Pack left wing Alexandre Giroux, who has had one of the best careers in AHL history. Giroux signed a one-year, two-way ($825,000 in NHL and $325,000 in AHL) with the Blue Jackets, the new parent club of the Springfield Falcons.

Giroux has 340 goals and 310 assists in 706 AHL games with six teams, including the Wolf Pack in 2003-06, when he had 74 goals and 53 assists in 167 games. His biggest numbers came while winning two Calder Cup titles with the Hershey Bears, where he had a staggering 166 goals and 131 assists in 209 games. That included 60 and 50 goals in the 2008-09 and 2009-10 regular seasons and 15 and 14 goals in those postseasons.

Giroux also has five goals and six assists in 39 NHL games but played only one game with the Rangers before signing as a free agent with the Capitals and then spending most of his four seasons in the organization with the Bears. In between, he signed a free-agent deal with the former Atlanta Thrashers and had 19 goals and 22 assists in 44 games with the Chicago Wolves before being traded back to the Bears.

On Jan. 18, 2009, Giroux broke Brett Hull’s AHL record for consecutive games with a goal (15), then on April 10, he capped his memorable season by being awarded the Les Cunningham Award as the AHL’s MVP.

On July 3, 2010, Giroux signed a one-year deal with the Edmonton Oilers and had 32 goals and 46 assists in 70 games with the Oklahoma City Barons while playing on a line with Wethersfield native Colin McDonald, the son of former Hartford Whalers defenseman Gerry McDonald who led the AHL in goals with 42, one more than former Wolf Pack wing Nigel Dawes.

WILD’S SIGNINGS INCLUDE FORMER WOLF PACK WING

The Wild signed four players within the organization, including former Wolf Pack Rangers right wing Jed Ortmeyer.

The gritty Ortmeyer, who was with the Wolf Pack and Rangers in 2003-07, was an integral part of the Houston Aeros, the Wild’s AHL affiliate, reaching the Calder Cup finals in May, when they lost to the Binghamton Senators in six games. After joining the Aeros midway through the season, he had six goals and 10 assists in 40 regular-season games and then added six goals and seven assists in 24 playoff games. He also was scoreless in four games with the Wild.

The Wild also signed defenseman Josh Harding and defensemen Drew Bagnall and Kyle Medvec, a fourth-round pick in 2006 inked to an entry-level contract after a four-year career at the University of Vermont, which reached the Frozen Four in 2009. The one-year signing of Harding ended speculation as to what the Wild would do for a backup for Niklas Backstrom.

BRUINS LOSE KABERLE TO HURRICANES, ADD JOE CORVO

The Bruins lost another piece of their championship team Tuesday when defenseman Tomas Kaberle signed a three-year, $12.75 million contract with the Carolina Hurricanes.

The Hurricanes then traded defenseman Joe Corvo to the Bruins for a fourth-round in the 2012 draft.

“Tomas is one of the top puck-moving defensemen in the NHL and power-play specialist,” Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford said in a release. “He has had a good career and is now a Stanley Cup champion. We welcome him to Carolina and look forward to his contributions to the Hurricanes.”

The Bruins acquired the 33-year-old from the Maple Leafs at the trade deadline. He had four goals and 43 assists in 82 games with the Bruins and Maple Leafs but only one goal and eight assists in 24 games following the trade. He saw his role diminish in the playoffs when he had 11 assists and was plus-8 in 25 games.

Kaberle is reunited with Hurricanes and former Whalers coach Paul Maurice, who guided the Maple Leafs for two seasons (2006-08). Kaberle is one of the game’s better offensive defensemen with 84 goals and 445 assists in 902 regular-season games in 12 NHL seasons. … All-Star defenseman Keith Yandle is staying in the desert thanks to a five-year, $26.25 million contract with the Phoenix Coyotes. Yandle, who was a restricted free agent, is coming off the best season of his four-year NHL career in Phoenix. He played in all 82 games and had 11 goals and 48 assists for 59 points, third most among defensemen. He also had a plus-12 rating, and 26 of his points came on the power play. … Speedy wing Andrew Ladd also got a new five-year deal for $22 with the new Winnipeg Jets. He had been involved in contract negotiations since late May, when it was announced the franchise was relocating from Atlanta to Winnipeg, Manitoba. He is scheduled to be married July 17 in Las Vegan and then is expected to be named Jets captain after holding position with the Atlanta Thrashers last season. … The Wild signed restricted free agent center Darroll Powe to a three-year, $3.2 million deal and former Wolf Pack center Jeff Taffe to a one-year, two-way contract. Powe was acquired from the Philadelphia Flyers on June 27 for the Wild’s third-round pick in 2013.

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