Just where could Brad Richards end up next season?

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With the news that the Dallas Stars ownership situation will lead to them not re-signing superstar center Brad Richards, the speculation immediately turns to where he may end up next season. While the Stars will look to trade Richards rights to a team interested in getting the exclusive time to negotiate a deal with him ahead of July 1 when he becomes an unrestricted free agent.

While Joe Nieuwendyk will take plenty of heat in Dallas for not getting the maximized trade value for Richards back in February, they’ll do what they can to get something for him now. After the supposed pursuit by both Toronto and the New York Rangers at the trade deadline, it’s safe to assume that they’ll both be in the hunt. As for who else might want in on the 31 year-old all star and 2004 Conn Smythe Trophy winner, we’ve got a hit list of the obvious and not-so obvious.

New York Rangers

The Rangers were hot after Richards at the trade deadline as they’re desperate for a playmaking center and someone to help Marian Gaborik continue being a 40 goal per year scorer. It’s clear that Glen Sather is interested and John Tortorella being his former coach in his days with Tampa Bay makes the Rangers a very attractive target. Richards’ skills would be shine on Broadway with the Blueshirts. The problem here is the cost it would take to get him on board.

The Rangers have a load of key restricted free agents to sign this off season. Brandon Dubinsky, Ryan Callahan, Brian Boyle, Mike Sauer, Matt Gilroy, and Artem Anisimov are all due to be re-signed. Dubinsky and Callahan will be due big time raises and time commitments meanwhile they’re paying big money to Gaborik and Chris Drury has one more year on his monster deal. The Rangers have just over $40 million already committed to next season’s salary cap and with the cap slated to be anywhere between $60-$63 million they’ll be cutting things close. There’s no doubt that Sather would like to make things work one way or another, but whether it’s worth the roster sacrifices to make it happen is another thing.

Toronto Maple Leafs

The Leafs are another team with interest in Richards and they’ve been eyeballing him for a while now. They too would love to get his playmaking skills in Toronto and having him line up with Phil Kessel and Nikolai Kulemin would give the Leafs a very solid first scoring line. The Leafs have $38 million committed to the salary cap next season and four important restricted free agents to get signed up. Luke Schenn, Carl Gunnarsson, Clarke MacArthur, and Tyler Bozak are all due to be retained and MacArthur is coming off a big year while Schenn, Gunnarsson, and Bozak are still very young and evolving into better players.

With guys like Colby Armstrong and Mikhail Grabovksi breaking out a bit last season as well, adding Richards would help give the Leafs the scoring depth they’d ideally like to have. Toronto also doesn’t have many contracts on the books that extend for an absurd number of years. It would make for an intriguing fit for Richards to join such a young team with potential.

Los Angeles Kings

One issue the Kings had last year was that when superstar center Anze Kopitar went down with a season ending injury, they were screwed not having a great option at center to fill the void. While the Kings could use some help with scoring wingers, Richards’ ability to help give the Kings two incredible all-star talents at center on their top two scoring lines would help snap their offensive woes and not let opposing defenses load up against Kopitar.

Dean Lombardi missed out on getting Ilya Kovalchuk last year and with Richards set to be the big prize in free agency, he won’t want to miss out again. He won’t give out a foolish contract or be tricked into a crazy bidding game, but if he’s got a shot at landing him he’ll need to do it to keep Kings fans feeling positive. And yes, they’ll be in on the hunt for him too.

While those are the heavy hitters in the hunt, there are a couple of teams I’d love to see get in the mix for more simple reasons.

Buffalo Sabres: With Terry Pegula owning the team and a guy like Tim Connolly coming off the books the Sabres are in desperate need of a playmaking center to help Derek Roy out. If Pegula wants to make a splash, finding a way to convince Richards to come to town would be a huge coup. Having Richards line up with guys like Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville would make the Sabres a serious offensive threat.

Tampa Bay Lightning: It’s where Richards started his career and he still loves the city. With stable ownership there and stable coaching and management he wouldn’t have to worry about outside interference again. The Lightning need to get Steve Stamkos locked into a long term deal this summer yet but if Richards took a hometown discount to play in a comfortable place, seeing him line up with Martin St. Louis once again would be dynamic.

Washington Capitals: Hey, why not? The Caps desperately need another playmaking center and while Nicklas Backstrom had a bit of a down season last year, Richards would come in and either help Alex Ovechkin get back to 50 goal form or give Alexander Semin someone to feed him perfect passes and become more consistent. The Caps offseason is set up to be fascinating and if they let Jason Arnott go and Brooks Laich gets away to free agency, getting Richards would make the Caps offense get back to its scary capabilities from the recent past.

Where do you think Richards will land next year? Make your choice from the teams we’ve talked about here or let us know in the comments who else you think he could sign with.

PHT Morning Skate: Winners, losers of NHL Olympic return; Training camp battles

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from the NHL and around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit for the PHT Morning Skate? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

Training camp battles, NHL playoff previews, and other return-to-play links

• Jackets Cannon looks at Columbus’ biggest strength: defense. In particular, Rachel Bules looks at how the pandemic pause will allow the Blue Jackets to have some serious training camp competition for spots. The Blue Jackets will need to be sharp, too, because the Maple Leafs’ firepower presents a real challenge for any defense corps. [Jackets Cannon]

• Speaking of the Maple Leafs — and training camp previews — Emily Sadler put together a thorough breakdown for Toronto. Can Frederik Andersen go the distance? Tyson Barrie ranks as a player to watch. Plus much more. [Sportsnet]

• George Richards takes a look at the Panthers’ “2.0” roster for training camp. If I had to single out a most interesting item, it’s that Anton Stralman has been involved. You may remember him airing some concerns about an NHL return. [Florida Hockey Now]

• What various analytics say about how the Wild’s lines match up with the Canucks. [Zone Coverage]

• It’s one thing for the Coyotes to say that they want to “get a little more juice” out of their offense. It’s another thing to actually lay out how it might work. Craig Morgan rolls out a detailed approach of how that might happen, including activating weakside defensemen. [AZ Coyotes Insider]

• The pandemic pause ranks as the biggest curveball Carter Hart‘s seen in the NHL so far. That said, it’s far from the only one. If he keeps passing these tests, it might all be to the benefit of Hart’s career. [NBC Sports Philadelphia]

Other hockey links

• As a pending UFA on a team that could face a salary cap crunch, Christopher Tanev knows he might not be back with the Canucks. Tanev said he hopes that he can return, and in particular, he’d love to remain Quinn Hughes‘ defensive partner for a long time. [NHL.com]

• It’s easy to look at the NHL’s return to Olympic participation as a good thing for everyone involved. As Ryan Kennedy points out, it depends on the outlook for different countries’ national teams. Kennedy presents the winners and losers for the NHL return to the Olympics, with Germany landing in an interesting spot. [The Hockey News]

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Sabres drop lawsuit after assistant coach is granted a green card

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BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Buffalo Sabres dropped their lawsuit against the federal government after immigration officials reversed course by approving the team’s strength and conditioning coach’s petition for a green card.

“The matter has been resolved amicably between both parties,” with Ed Gannon receiving approval for an EB-1 visa, the Sabres announced in a text message Wednesday.

The Sabres sued U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in May by alleging officials wrongly denied the team’s visa petition for the British-born coach.

The announcement came a week after the Sabres’ lawyer notified the U.S. District Court in Buffalo that the team was voluntary dismissing the suit, with each side agreeing to bear their own costs and fees.

The Sabres accused immigration services of misstating facts and arbitrarily failing to follow its own rules in denying a green card to Gannon. They argued the decision potentially subjected the team “to substantial financial harm and disruption in developing (its) athletes.”

Gannon was hired by the Sabres in 2015 while the team was beefing up its player development staff. He previously spent 10 years as the lead strength and conditioning coach of a professional rugby club, the Leicester Tigers.

The Sabres filed the application for permanent residency on Gannon’s behalf in October. To be granted a green card, Gannon had to demonstrate that he was at the top of his field, and the Sabres argued that he proved his abilities under USCIS’ criteria.

The denial of Gannon’s petition came amid efforts by the Trump administration to limit legal immigration. A report last year by the Migration Policy Institute concluded that USCIS had become “increasingly active in immigration enforcement” and that the agency was intentionally slowing down adjudication of immigration benefits applications.

Healthy Ekman-Larsson ready to give Coyotes a playoff boost

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GLENDALE, Ariz. — Oliver Ekman-Larsson had knee surgery last summer, fully expecting it to help him have a healthy 2019-20 season.

The Arizona Coyotes captain instead played with lingering pain, never able to fully recover.

The NHL’s shutdown due to the coronavirus pandemic was a huge letdown, but it at least allowed Ekman-Larsson time to get back to full strength.

”These 2 1/2 months have been really good for me,” he said during a conference call this week. ”My knee is feeling 100% and I’ve been able to get stronger and faster.”

Ekman-Larsson had another solid season in 2018-19, finishing second on the team with 44 points with 14 goals. He was named to the NHL All-Star team for the fifth time and continued to be one of the NHL’s best offensive defensemen.

Ekman-Larsson opted to have offseason knee surgery to help with another lower-body injury and never was quite right this season, his 10th in the NHL.

The break allowed him time to heal, as did a trip back to his home in Sweden.

Unlike Arizona, Sweden did not go on lockdown once the pandemic hit and Ekman-Larsson took advantage, using the time to heal physically and mentally.

”With this virus going around, I haven’t felt so good mentally,” he said. ”Going back home and being around my family really helped that situation. I benefited from the physical part of being away. For the mental part, it was nice to get away from it.”

The Coyotes returned to the ice this week to prepare for the resumption of the season.

The NHL and the NHL Players’ Association announced Monday a tentative deal on a return-to-play format. Should it be ratified, the league will resume play on Aug. 1 with 24 teams proceeding in an expanded playoff format at two hub cities in Canada.

The Coyotes, the West’s No. 11 seed, will open against Nashville in a best-of-five series in their first postseason appearance since reaching the 2012 Western Conference Finals.

”It just feels like it’s a different game,” said Ekman-Larsson, the lone remaining player from the 2012 team. ”Everybody feels faster and stronger. I don’t know how it’s even possible, but at the same time it’s another level.

”I’m glad that I’ve had the chance to be in the playoffs before. There’s so many good teams and you don’t really know when you are going to have the chance.”

The Coyotes have a chance to make a little noise once they get there.

Ekman-Larsson is healthy, as is Phil Kessel, who struggled with injuries after being traded from Pittsburgh before the season. Arizona also has one of the best goaltending tandems in Antti Raanta and Darcy Keumper, who are both healthy as well.

”For us to get a chance and show that we are good enough to be a playoff team, I think that’s huge for our group moving forward,” Ekman-Larsson said.

A healthy Ekman-Larsson gives them an opportunity to keep moving forward.

Chris Pronger leaves senior VP of hockey ops role with Panthers

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The Panthers announced on Wednesday that Chris Pronger is leaving his role as senior vice president of hockey operations and senior advisor. The Hockey Hall of Famer joined the organization in 2017 after spending three years in the NHL’s Department of Player Safety.

“I want to personally thank the Viola family, Doug Cifu, Dale Tallon and all of the staff with the Florida Panthers,” said Pronger via a team statement. “I was able to grow as an executive and more importantly as a person in my three years with the hockey club. I wish the Panthers organization nothing but the best in the upcoming playoffs and years to come.”

Pronger is moving on to focus on the company he runs with his wife, Lauren. Well Inspired Travels “caters to elite athletes, C-Level executives and business owners.”

The Panthers are currently preparing for their Stanley Cup Qualifier series against the Islanders, which is set to begin next month.

MORE:
A look at the Eastern Conference matchups
Final standings for 2019-20 NHL season, NHL draft lottery results

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.