'Rangers Inside And Out'
By Sean Hartnett
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When Brad Richards cleans out his locker at breakup day and speaks to the media in Tarrytown on Monday, it's very likely it will be the final time he represents the New York Rangers.
The 33-year-old centerman became a helpless bystander in the final two games of the Rangers' lackluster playoff campaign. Head coach John Tortorella elected to make Richards a healthy scratch in Games 4 and 5 before the Blueshirts bowed out to the Bruins in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Richards sat in the press box at TD Garden, unable to make an impact on the ice as the Rangers essentially wrapped him up in bubble wrap to ensure his buyout.
FROM FIRST LINE CENTER TO THE PRESS BOX, RICHARDS' ROLE HAS DISAPPEARED
It wasn't supposed to end this way for Richards. When Richards signed a nine-year, $60 million contract on July 2, 2011, he was expected to be a key player whom Tortorella could lean on in pressured 'backs against the wall' moments in the playoffs.
After all, this was a player who has a long history of clutch playoff goals and assists. Richards' 78 career playoff points are the 18th highest of all active NHL players. Yet, Richards regressed greatly in the 2013 calendar year -- to the point that he fell from a first line center all the way down the depth chart to a fourth line center and eventually became a healthy scratch.
It pained Tortorella to pull the plug on Richards in Game 4. Considering everything they accomplished and went through together to lift the Stanley Cup in Tampa Bay in 2004, Tortorella couldn't hold back the emotion while explaining the decision.
"This is a Conn Smythe winner. A guy I've grown up with," Tortorella said after Game 4. "A guy I love as a person and a player, but I have to make that decision regarding this. So kiss my a-- if you want to write something different. It's not about blaming that guy. I don't want anybody to pile on him. This is my decision and I make it for the hockey club."
Derek Stepan took great leaps forward in 2013 and will continue to be the Rangers' number one center for years to come. Derick Brassard quickly secured the number two center role after arriving from the Columbus Blue Jackets in the Marian Gaborik trade.
It leaves Richards without a role, which Tortorella alluded to after Game 4.
"He has had struggles here. It continues. Me putting him in that role does not help him," Tortorella explained. "So I'd rather have him out and identify how we're going to run our fourth line."
Richards' game lacks the level of physicality or grinding nature needed to play on the third or fourth lines. At 33, he's not going to suddenly start throwing body checks and his overall defensive game is regressing.
WHY THE RANGERS ARE FORCED TO BUY OUT RICHARDS NOW
The Rangers have one compliance buyout remaining after they exercised their first on defenseman Wade Redden in January. Going into the summer, the Rangers must extend three players coming into the prime in Stepan, Ryan McDonagh, Carl Hagelin. All of which are deserving of significant raises. The trio along with Mats Zuccarello and long-term injured defenseman Michael Sauer are restricted free agents.
In addition, Ryane Clowe, Steve Eminger, Roman Hamrlik and Matt Gilroy are unrestricted free agents. Both Clowe and Eminger are likely to return. Eminger's steady play could earn him a raise over the $750,000 he made in 2012-13. Clowe's injuries and preference to remain in New York could work in the Rangers favor in free agency.
Added to their priorities this offseason is the possibility of agreeing extensions with iconic goaltender Henrik Lunqvist and beloved captain Ryan Callahan. Both are set to become unrestricted free agents in the summer of 2014.
All of this puts a strain on the shrinking salary cap that falls from $70.2 million to $64.3 million in 2013-14. The falling cap number increases the likelihood of Richards being bought out this summer.
Should the Rangers elect to buy out Richards this summer, his $6,666,667 cap hit will disappear. They would owe him $1.7 million per year through the 2026-27 season. That number would shrink to $1.5 million per year should they opt to buy out Richards after the 2013-14 season. The ability for general manager Glen Sather to utilize New York's final compliance buyout disappears after June 2014.
Further working against Richards is the way the his contract was written before the new collective bargaining agreement. Should Richards retire during the length of the contract, the Rangers would be saddled with significant cap penalties due to the "cap recapture rule." Currently, Richards is set to earn $1 million in each of the three final years before becoming an unrestricted free agent in 2020.
WHAT IS RICHARDS' LEGACY AS A RANGER?
Sadly though, if this is indeed the end -- his legacy in New York will mirror that of Chris Drury, whose veteran presence and guiding hand came in helpful in the locker room -- but ultimately was unable to accomplish what he desired on the Garden ice.
Bitter, dissatisfied Rangers fans will quickly compare Richards to Scott Gomez. Just mentioning the name Gomez sends shudders up the spines of the majority of Rangers fans. So, I apologize to those still bearing painful memories and especially to those who twice bought number 19 jerseys hoping both Richards and Gomez would be the missing piece.
In recent years, Blair Betts and Ruslan Fedotenko wore the number proudly. Perhaps, the Rangers should raise number 19 to rafters in honor of the legendary center Jean Ratelle.
The comparison to Gomez isn't totally unfair. Gomez is also 33, played two seasons with the Rangers and ranks 9th among active players with 101 career playoff points. Richards and Gomez were both brought to Madison Square Garden with Stanley Cup credentials and alternate captain badges were sewn onto their jerseys.
Their games suffered a similar breakdown in their second seasons as Rangers. Like Gomez, the passing acumen of Richards faded in his second year at the Garden. The turnovers and giveaways piled up and he became a very ineffective power play quarterback.
Again if this is end, Richards'' legacy will be remembered as a concoction of bad memories of both Drury and Gomez's disappointing stays in New York. Richards' time in New York will be remembered as another failed experiment in a long line of underwhelming big-ticket items signed under Sather's watch.
HOW MUCH DOES RICHARDS HAVE LEFT IN THE TANK?
The most obvious concern for any team willing to consider signing Richards is his legs. Scouts were divided throughout the shortened 2012-13 season on whether Richards had lost a gear or if not playing in Europe during the lockout had him playing catch up all year.
I still think Richards can be an effective playmaking center given the right situation and a full camp to regain his legs. Unfortunately for Richards, that opportunity won't come in the form of a third season playing under the Madison Square Garden lights.
You can follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey.
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