Getty ImagesBack in February, Larry Brooks of the NY Post speculated that the New York Rangers could eventually use an amnesty buyout and get out of center Brad Richards’ elephantine contract that runs through 2021.
At the time, I found the notion absurd: Two years removed from winning the Richards Derby, one year after he had 15 points in 20 playoff games for the Rangers, and a slow start means the Blueshirts jettison what was to be a major pillar of a championship foundation?
Then came Richards’ finish to the regular season: 11 points in 6 games, including a hat trick against the Buffalo Sabres. I kept hearing terms like “empty points” to describe that effort, but on paper Richards looked like he was rounding into postseason form.
And then the postseason hit, and that paper was crumbled up and tossed in the trash.
As Rangers fans flail about trying to diagnose how this team could be down 0-3 to the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference semifinals, Brad Richards’ name glows like a neon sign on Broadway. He’s arguably the biggest bust of the 2013 postseason on an individual basis; a pathetic shell of a formerly clutch player who’s been reduced to a $60-million fourth liner.
Turns out Larry Brooks’ speculation may become a necessity.
Remove that run at the end, and Richards’ regular season was just as dreary as his postseason: 23 points in 40 games for a 0.58 points per game average. Even factoring in those 11 points at season’s end, Richards finished with the lowest points per game average of his NHL career, spanning back to 2000-01.
The 33-year-old former Conn Smythe winner has one goal and zero assists in 10 games for the Rangers in the playoffs. Steve Eminger has outscored him. Dan Girardi has outscored him. Arron Asham had outscored him. His faceoffs are at 47.9 percent, which is down from last postseason as well.
The Rangers’ struggles on the power play are now legendary: 2 for 38, for a 5.3 percent conversion rate. And while you can’t pin those struggles on just one player, we submit the following for your disapproval: Brad Richards, second on the Rangers in power-play scoring in the regular season (9 points, tied with Rick Nash) hasn’t tallied a point on the man advantage in the postseason despite playing 3:47 per night, second only to Nash.
Richards is still seeing the ice on the power play. The rest of the game, not so much.
After skating 23 shifts and 18:23 in Game 5 against the Washington capitals, Richards’ ice time was sliced to 9:34 in Game 6; it was 11:12 in Game 7; in the first three games against the Bruins, Richards has played 12:57, 10:34 and then 8:10 in Game 3, when Coach John Tortorella had him benched in the third period.
Sixty-million dollars over nine years. Benched in the most important game of the Rangers’ season.
Tortorella said, “Yes,” the Rangers need more out of Richards and, “Yes,” Richards can provide that even in his unprecedented role as a fourth-line center making cameo appearances.
But probably not. Probably the only way for Richards to contribute is to be given a bigger role, but the cold, hard truth is he has done nothing to earn it this year. Tortorella gives credit where credit is due, but you can’t win games flashing credit cards.
So here we are, with Richards on the bench, his limited assignment by now almost an afterthought.
So what to do with that $60-million Fourth Liner? The structure of his 9-year deal would indicate the Rangers assumed he'd hit the wall around 2017, when his salary drops to $1 million. But this apparent decline is ahead of schedule.
Richards isn't producing at an acceptable rate any longer. This isn't a judgment based on the small sample size of the 2013 playoffs, or even just the 2013 season. It's based on the unfortunate trend of the last few years. Some seasons may still be better than others for Richards, and a bounce-back year, under more standard circumstances than this shortened 2013 season, isn't out of the question. But there's no denying that Richards is heading in the wrong direction with seven years remaining on his contract. And seven years is an eternity in sports.
The Rangers have the option, if they can make it work under the cap, of postponing a decision on Richards until after the 2013-14 season, at which point they'd again be allowed to use the last of their so-called compliance buyouts. Doing so would give Richards a chance to bounce back from his ugly 2013 season -- but it'll take more than one year for Richards to prove that the last few seasons haven't been the beginning a downward trend. And the Rangers don't have that kind of time to evaluate him.
In fairness to Richards, there could be a reason why this season has gone off the rails: #LockoutProblems.
He didn’t play during the lockout, opting instead to take part in the CBA talks on behalf of the NHLPA and help to organize charity events to benefit those affected by Hurricane Sandy. Noble causes, both of them – but not exactly the kind of skills-honing that was going on for other veteran NHL players during the work stoppage.
He had a dismal stretch from mid-February into March, and the Rangers’ record during that stretch was just as underwhelming. While other struggling players who stayed home during the lockout eventually found their game – Milan Lucic of the Bruins, for example – Richards couldn’t find any consistency.
Who knows? Maybe with a proper offseason and a full training camp, Richards can return with some semblance of playing like Brad Richards again.
Or, perhaps, playing 8:10 in the season’s most important game is a sign that Richards’ time with the Rangers is also running short.