Brad Richards, due to become an NHL unrestricted free agent on July 1, would love a return to his old team, the Lightning. It's still something of a fantasy scenario, contingent on the Lightning's interest. Even when he refuses to prematurely consider the possibilities, inevitably, he will encounter someone who says, "Brad, when are you coming back?"
He can't answer that.
But Richards knows this — he never wanted to leave Tampa Bay.
"I don't know what they're thinking as an organization," said Richards, 31, who has played for the Dallas Stars since the Lightning shipped him away a few hours before the 2008 trade deadline. "If they're going to talk to me, I'd definitely be interested."
Richards, a center, captured the Conn Smythe Trophy during the Lightning's 2004 run to the Stanley Cup championship. He immediately became one of the NHL's biggest free-agent prizes when the Stars said they would not offer a new contract. Richards is completing a five-year, $39 million deal he signed in Tampa Bay before the 2006-07 season.
In February 2008, with incoming Tampa Bay owners Oren Koules and Len Barrie applying some payroll-reducing pressure, Richards was sent to Dallas for a package that included goalie Mike Smith, center Jeff Halpern, wing Jussi Jokinen and a draft pick.
"I certainly wasn't looking to leave at that time — and I don't think it ever had to happen the way it did — but I enjoyed Dallas,'' said Richards, Tampa Bay's third-round selection in 1998, the year Vinny Lecavalier was the first overall pick. "Now I have this opportunity in front of me. Everybody keeps telling me this is the best time of my life. But now it's at the point where you're like a kid at Christmas and it's taking forever to get here. You get anxious about it.
"When you know you're going on the market, you realize it could be one of the most important decisions of your life. It could be your last contract before you retire. You look at the intangible things, where you'd like to play, the places where you could win. So, there's a lot going on in my mind right now.''
Richards figures to command a deal worth about $7 million per season, roughly the same contractual neighborhood where the Lightning will seek to place Steven Stamkos.
"Obviously, fitting in with Tampa wouldn't be an issue because of my history here," Richards said. "In this salary-cap world, you have to be aware of each organization's dynamics. Maybe you couldn't get top dollar (in Tampa) that you might get somewhere else, but you consider other things.
"I've got friends and people I play golf with who constantly hammer me about coming back to Tampa. Even if I tried, I couldn't get it out of my mind. So yes, it's there. I'd love to see it progress. But what's going to happen? Who knows?"
Richards will spend much of the summer in Tampa. He trains at the Saddlebrook Resort. A few weeks back, he even took in a few playoff games at the St. Pete Times Forum.
"It was pretty cool to see the town like that, the way it was before,'' Richards said. "When I played with the Lightning (in 2004), I was in a bubble. This time, I could see how people react to the team. It's a good thing going on.
"If you get the right owner, a general manager like Steve Yzerman, people who know how to do things, it's great. I think we just needed the right kind of owner to come in here. Um, maybe I shouldn't say 'we,' right?"
After July 1, though?