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Top Shelf: Buyouts add depth to free agency

<p>In the span of less than a week, Mike Richards could go from celebrating another Stanley Cup championship with the Los Angeles Kings to getting bought out by the club.</p>

Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - In the span of less than a week, Mike Richards could go from celebrating another Stanley Cup championship with the Los Angeles Kings to getting bought out by the club.

In a perfect world, the Kings would prefer to hold on to Richards for his veteran leadership, versatility and penchant for winning, but his contract makes it nearly impossible for L.A. to keep him.

Business decisions like the one involving the Kings and Richards are being mulled over right now in front offices all over the league. Of course, more players being bought will only lead to a deepening of this summer's free agency pool, and guys like Richards aren't expected to last long once they become available to sign on July 1.

The NHL's most recent collective bargaining agreement handed each team two compliance buyouts to use either last summer or this one. Unlike normal buyouts, these ones were designed to help clubs adjust to the lowered salary cap following the lockout and therefore do not count against the cap.

Four teams -- Chicago, Montreal, Philadelphia and Toronto -- have already used both of their compliance buyouts, but far more teams have yet to use even one. This year's buyout window began on Monday and runs through June 30 at 5 p.m. ET.

By the time the buyout period ends, it could have a big impact on the free agency market, as teams shed off some unwanted contracts before dipping into their pockets to spend again on July 1. Although compliance buyouts can rid a team of a business mistake or two, they can't prevent the same club from making more bad decisions when free agency begins.

Here's a look at some of the biggest names who expect to be bought out over the next few weeks:

MIKE RICHARDS - F - LOS ANGELES KINGS

ANNUAL AVERAGE VALUE (YEARLY CAP HIT) - $5.75 million

LAST SEASON OF CURRENT CONTRACT - 2019-20

Kings head coach Darryl Sutter has expressed his love of Richards' winning attitude on more than a few occasions, but the hard-working forward could wind up getting bought out thanks to a contract that has him eating up $5.75 million of cap space for the rest of the decade.

It would be a difficult decision to let Richards go after he helped the team win two Stanley Cup titles in three seasons with the club, but L.A. general manager Dean Lombardi may have to do it in the interest of his team's long term cap health. Letting go of Richards also could free up space to eventually lock up more important forwards like Anze Kopitar and Justin Williams for the foreseeable future. Kopitar, a superb two-way player entering his prime, has two years remaining at $6.8 million per campaign, while Williams, the newly minted Conn Smythe Trophy winner, is finally getting his due as a legitimate NHL star and should expect a big raise on his last contract, which paid him $14.6 million over four years.

Richards, meanwhile, would instantly become a hot commodity on the open market. He may wind up getting similar money to his present deal in terms of average salary, but the span of the contract will be much shorter. Richards' ability to play in all situations could make him a valuable addition for a number of potential Stanley Cup contenders, and it will be interesting to see where he lands if L.A. decides to part ways with him.

BRAD RICHARDS - F - NEW YORK RANGERS

AAV - $6.67 million

LAST SEASON OF CURRENT CONTRACT - 2019-20

In the early part of the 2014 playoffs, Brad Richards seemed like he might have been playing himself out of a potential buyout. However, Richards' play slipped significantly as the postseason wore on and he found himself relegated to the fourth line in the Stanley Cup Finals against Los Angeles. With a slew of impending restricted and unrestricted free agents about to hit the open market, Rangers GM Glen Sather could use the space provided by eliminating the rest of Richards' lucrative deal from the cap. It's either that or buy out Rick Nash, another highly paid and inconsistent forward. Nash, however, is only signed through 2017-18 (at $7.8 million a season) and he just turned 30, making him considerably younger than the 34-year-old Richards.

So all signs point to Richards being the prime buyout candidate in New York. Sather would then be able to focus his attention on negotiating with prospective free agents like Brian Boyle, Derick Brassard, Chris Kreider Dominic Moore, Anton Stralman and Mats Zuccarello -- all of whom had a bigger positive impact on New York's Eastern Conference title run this season than Richards.

Richards was the prize of the 2011 free agency class, but this summer he won't be getting anything near the nine-year, $58.5 million deal the Rangers gave him three years ago. At a reduced price, however, he could spark a great deal of interest come July 1.

VILLE LEINO - F - BUFFALO SABRES

AAV - $6 million

LAST SEASON OF CURRENT CONTRACT - 2016-17

This is the most obvious buyout of them all, so it's not surprising Buffalo has already begun the process of moving past the Ville Leino debacle by waiving him Tuesday for the purpose of buying him out officially at a later date.

Leino was coming off a couple successful seasons in Philadelphia when he signed an ill-fated six-year, $27 million deal with Buffalo. Almost from the very beginning, the signing proved to be a blunder, as the Finn never managed to recapture the magic he displayed during his brief time with the Flyers. In three seasons and 137 games with the Sabres, Leino only managed 10 goals and 36 assists for a total of 46 points. That was after he had posted 53 points (19 goals, 34 assists) in 81 games during his final season with Philadelphia.

Leino played like a bottom-six forward with the Sabres and he will get paid accordingly this summer. Hopefully, he is able to forget Buffalo and rehabilitate his image in a new location.

ONDREJ PAVELEC - G - WINNIPEG JETS

AAV - $3.9 million

LAST SEASON OF CURRENT CONTRACT - 2016-17

The Jets paid Ondrej Pavelec like a No. 1 goaltender by agreeing to a five- year, $19.5 million contract prior to the 2013-13 season, but it has not worked out as planned. Instead of blossoming, Pavelec, who will turn 27 before the start of next season, has regressed considerably and now it seems like he's holding the franchise back in its quest to make the playoffs for the first time since relocating to Winnipeg.

Pavelec posted a career-best save percentage of .914 while playing in 58 games for the Atlanta Thrashers in 2010-11, but that number has dropped in each of the first three seasons since the Thrashers moved to Winnipeg. This season, the Czech goaltender had a poor .901 save percentage to go with a 3.01 goals against average. It's a good bet the Jets could get similar numbers out of backup Al Montoya or another option in net, one that wouldn't be costing the team nearly $4 million of cap space for the next three seasons.

There's a chance a rebuilding team could give Pavelec an opportunity to be a regular starter next season, but he may have to take a backup role at first if he wants to play for a contender.

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