If there was any question whether the Flyers saw a future captain in center Mike Richards, it was addressed yesterday in flattering terms.
The Flyers gave Richards a 12-year, $69 million contract extension with an annual cap hit of $5.75 million. It is the longest contact in franchise history.
"I am very happy to be a part of the organization for hopefully the rest of my career," Richards said. "It's just exciting to be a part of something that has such a great tradition and history as the Philadelphia Flyers.
"It's a lot of money. The next 12 years of my life is going to be fun. . . . [Comcast-Spectacor chairman] Ed Snider has given the chance I wanted to be here."
Obviously, the club values the 22-year-old and sees him as a successor to current captain Jason Smith. Richards is an alternate captain this season.
"We consider Mike one of the young core players in terms of his play and leadership, and we believe there is more growth in his game in terms of production and leadership," general manager Paul Holmgren said. "If somewhere down the road Mike became our captain, it wouldn't surprise me."
The contract made Richards the third-highest-paid Flyer, behind Danny Briere, whose eight-year, $52 million deal averages $6.5 million, and Kimmo Timonen, whose six-year, $37.8 million contract averages $6.3 million.
Richards' no-trade clause kicks in during the 2011-12 season, when he would have reached unrestricted free agency.
Asked why he committed to such a long deal, Richards said, "Two months ago, Paul and I had a conversation after the season started and talked about the future and what we wanted. I told him I wanted to be part of Philadelphia and the organization as long as I can.
"Things started rolling. When Paul asked me if I was serious, I was. I wanted to be here. I love the city. I love the organization and when given the opportunity, I was excited to be here the next 12 years."
Echoing the overall business strategy of the team's owner, Comcast-Spectacor, the Flyers are seeking long-term deals as a hedge against future inflation of the salary cap. Though $5.75 million seems a lot, the most any player can make this season is $10 million, and that is expected to increase over the next decade.
"On a longer-term deal, are we saving?" Holmgren said. "As Mike continues to develop and grow as a player, yeah. I won't say he's a bargain player, but it certainly stabilizes things for the Flyers."
Going into last night's game against Montreal, Richards had already reached his career high in points with 34 and goals with 14.
"Look at what he's done," coach John Stevens said. "We've loved everything about him since we drafted him. He's developed into an NHL pro capable of playing in all situations. His leadership skills as an established player have come out this year."
Richards would have been a Group II, or restricted, free agent in July. Last month, Anaheim locked up Ryan Getzlaf with a five-year, $26.6 million contract. He, too, would have been an attractive Group II free agent this summer.
Getzlaf was the 19th pick overall in the rich 2003 NHL draft. Richards was taken 24th. Career-wise, their numbers are close. Getzlaf had a breakout season last season with 25 goals. Richards is doing the same now.
Given that the Ducks lost Dustin Penner to Edmonton via a Group II offer sheet, Holmgren realized that under the new collective-bargaining agreement, it was likely some club would have given Richards a multiyear, multimillion-dollar offer sheet in July.
"The threat is real," Holmgren said. "When you have young players going into restricted free agency, it's there. We didn't want to get Mike in that situation."
Holmgren said it wasn't ideal that players were jumping from entry-level salaries of under $1 million to multimillion deals on their first re-signing, but conceded that the new labor agreement had changed the landscape.
"It's a big jump, but we need to do what is right for the organization," he said.
Richards' contract took 11/2 months of negotiating with agent Pat Morris. The Flyers also considered a 15-year deal. They have five players signed for five years or longer: Richards, Briere, Timonen, Scott Hartnell and Simon Gagne. Holmgren said the organization likely wouldn't offer other players a deal of that length.
"Mike Richards brings a lot of intangibles to our team," Holmgren said. "Some are seen on the ice, some are unseen - his presence, the way he carries himself. He's wearing [an A] this year at a relatively young age. . . . He's a good young leader."
Bill Barber and Bobby Clarke were lifetime Flyers as players. But free agency and rising salaries have changed such situations. Holmgren stressed that signing "core" players long-term remained a club strategy. Jeff Carter, R.J. Umberger and Randy Jones are all in their final contract years.
"As we move along in the salary cap, it is going to be very difficult to keep all your young players together," Holmgren said. "We're going to try to keep this group together. Whether we can remains to be seen. Mike was one our priorities. The way he's played expedited the process."
This contract will become the second-longest active deal, behind the 15-year, $67.5 million contract New York Islanders goalie Rick DiPietro signed in 2006.
The Flyers' next focus, Holmgren said, was re-signing Smith, who will be an unrestricted free agent in July.