I’m Dan Mount and this is the next installment of my summer series on what players and coaches have storylines surrounding them for the upcoming 2013-14. If you have comments or want to follow me on Twitter, please follow me @DanMountSports.
Just over two years ago, Brad Richards was going to be hailed as the toast of New York. Richards had just signed a nine-year, $60 million deal with the New York Rangers and was hailed as a piece of John Tortorella’s plan to make the Broadway Blueshirts a Stanley Cup champion. He was the most coveted free agent of the 2011 season.
Richards did live up to the hype in 2011-12 when he netted 25 goals and 41 assists for the Rangers. The team earned the number one seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs before losing to the New Jersey Devils in six games.
There was a lot of buzz surrounding the Rangers after the lockout ended, and the team was tabbed as one of the favorites to win the 2013 Stanley Cup. However, Richards and New York both got off to a rocky start. The Rangers were in danger of missing the playoffs and Richards couldn’t get started offensively. Richards and his team got on track with some late season fireworks, including Richards notching 11 points in six games.
Although the Rangers beat the Capitals in game seven, Richards was a non-factor. He only had one point in ten games before he was a healthy scratch in game four against the Boston Bruins. This came as quite a shock to a person that took home the Conn Smythe (playoff mvp) trophy in the 2004 playoffs with Tampa Bay. John Tortorella told the media this after the announcement of Richards not playing:
"This is a Conn Smythe winner, a guy I've grown up with, a guy that I love as a person and as a player, but I have to make that decision ... so kiss my a-- if you wanna write something different," Tortorella said. "It's not about blaming that guy, and I don't want anyone to pile on. This is my decision, and I make it for the hockey club."
The Rangers fell in five games and the offseason dominoes fell. John Tortorella was fired after the team failed to meet expectations, but the major talk in the offseason was whether Richards would be bought out of his massive contract. The window at the end of June gave many conflicting reports on whether or not he would be bought out of his deal.
After much debate, the Rangers decided to keep Richards and not use one of the two buyouts they have. (The Rangers already used one on oft-injured and disappointing defenseman Wade Redden.) Rangers General Manager Glenn Sather told the media there were lots of factors in keeping Richards for the 2013-14 season. Sather stated that Richards is a good player that had an off year.
The new season brings new questions on what Richards will be doing with the team. The Rangers did hire a new coach in former Vancouver Canucks bench boss Alain Vigneault (who was unjustly fired after another playoff failure despite making the postseason again.) Vigneault is someone that does a good job of maximizing the talents of his skill players. (Ask the Sedin twins, Henrik and Daniel, how much they will miss him.) The Rangers may see fit to drop Richards down to the third line so the new coach can exploit the matchups against lesser-talented third-line centers. Derek Stepan and Derick Brassard could be moved up to the be centers on the top two lines.
There are a few factors working against Richards if he doesn’t produce next season. The Rangers still have to come up with a contract extension for franchise goalie Henrik Lundvqist and for Stepan. Richards will have to go back to the pace of one point per game like he did with the Dallas Stars in the 2009-10 and 10-11 seasons. Richards has a cap hit of $6.6 million and that money would go a long way into keep Lundqvist and Stepan.
Richards still has the potential to be a big contributor for the Rangers and is great on the power play when he’s on his game. However, the team may want to use that money in other areas besides Lundqvist (who I think will stay after giving New York a big hometown discount.) The Rangers are a team that wants to make a Cup run sooner rather than later and the Richards thing could fester and become a big distraction.
If Richards isn’t bought out, then he will be a Ranger for the rest of his life. The question is.. are the Rangers prepared to make that sort of a commitment to him.
Dan Mount is an NHL columnist for TJRSports.com. He is based out of Watertown, NY.