- Associated Press - Thursday, June 30, 2011

NEW YORK (AP) - How’s this for a change of pace? While the NFL and NBA are embroiled in labor disputes that threaten their upcoming seasons, NHL clubs are gearing up to spend more money on salaries than they have since a lockout canceled a full campaign six years ago.

Harmony exists in hockey _ at least for one more season _ and the 30 teams will be living with a salary cap that is at its highest level since it was created. They can start shopping Friday when the free-agent season kicks off.

While not everyone will spend up to the $64.3 million cap, a $4.9 million increase over last season, each club will have to reach the minimum payroll of $48.3 million. That figure is $9.3 million higher than the original ceiling established after the season-long lockout in 2005.

“Lots of teams have lots of money to spend because the cap went up, which meant the floor went up,” Washington Capitals general manager George McPhee said. “Teams with money are going to have to spend, and the teams trying to get to the floor are going to have to spend. So somebody is going to spend too much money on free agents and I’m glad it’s not going to be us, because we’re in pretty good shape at this point.”

Dallas Stars center Brad Richards appears to be the rare gem in a free-agent class that contains many familiar names, but not a lot of elite talent.

The New York Rangers have long coveted Richards, who would give them the playmaking center they have been searching for and someone to quarterback an often stagnant power play. His familiarity with Rangers coach John Tortorella, who coached Richards when they won the Stanley Cup together with the Tampa Bay Lightning, makes this appear to be a natural fit if New York can meet Richards‘ contract demands and squeeze him under what is still a crowded cap for them.

The Rangers made some room Wednesday when they bought out the final year of captain Chris Drury’s contract, cutting ties with one of the centers who never quite filled their needs.

“I love the guy, but we still have to make a decision we feel is best for the hockey club,” Tortorella said.

Philadelphia could also be in the mix one week after the Flyers shipped out star forwards Mike Richards (Los Angeles) and Jeff Carter (Columbus) in a reshaping of the club that also freed up cap space.

Team chairman Ed Snider said he hopes Philadelphia is done with big moves for now, but there is some buzz that the Flyers could take a run at restricted free agent Steven Stamkos, who has combined for 96 goals the past two seasons with the Lightning.

Richards could also possibly land back in Tampa Bay or could look to strike it rich with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Once he finds a new home, the rest of the pieces could fall into place.

The Lightning already addressed one need by agreeing to terms on a one-year deal with 41-year-old goalie Dwayne Roloson. Roloson was a key player in Tampa Bay’s surprising run to the Eastern Conference finals after he was acquired from the Islanders on Jan. 1.

“I don’t think there are a lot of stars that are free agents,” Red Wings general manager Ken Holland said. “But I think there are some players out there who can help.”

One of those is former scoring champion Jaromir Jagr, who is looking to return to the NHL after spending three seasons in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League following a stint with the Rangers.

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