LOS ANGELES — In hockey, the captain is held up as a mythical figure. He is supposed to be the team’s best player or the team’s heart and soul. Ideally, he’s both. The last time the New York Rangers won the Stanley Cup, their captain was Mark Messier, who guaranteed they would beat the New Jersey Devils in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference final and then backed it up with a hat trick. The NHL now has a leadership award named after him.
But here are the Rangers back in the final for the first time in 20 years, and they don’t have a captain. They have a de facto captain. They have Brad Richards, who was a healthy scratch in the playoffs last year, who isn’t wearing the ‘C’ on his sweater this year, who might not be on the team next year. He can be bought out without a salary-cap penalty this summer under a provision in the new collective bargaining agreement. In a cold business sense, he should be.
Even winning the Stanley Cup might not save him. Asked Tuesday if Richards had the power to determine his future with his performance against the Los Angeles Kings, Rangers general manager Glen Sather did the only thing he could. He dodged the question.
“He’s been terrific,” Sather said. “He’s acting as the captain right now. He’s certainly a leader in the room. He’s been a leader on the ice. Great guy. I really can’t make any comments about what’s going to happen during the summer. If we win the Stanley Cup, if we lose the Stanley Cup, I think the decision is something that comes later.”
This is not the normal narrative. But the story of Richards is an important part of the story of these Rangers, and the moral of the story might be this: Seize the day. You never know what tomorrow might bring.
Ten years ago, Richards won the Stanley Cup with the Tampa Bay Lightning. He won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs’ most valuable player. He still had so much in front of him. He was 24.
“I was young and stupid back then, maybe, a little more nonchalant,” Richards said. “But now I know this doesn’t come around often.”
Last year, Richards was a healthy scratch in the Rangers’ last two playoff games – benched by the same coach with whom he had won the Cup and the Conn Smythe in Tampa Bay, John Tortorella. Frankly, he deserved it. He was lucky he hadn’t been benched earlier. He had not stayed in top shape during the lockout, and he was unprepared when play resumed suddenly that January. He struggled, a step slow. It snowballed. He lost confidence.
“It was the lowest point of my career,” Richards said. “You never want to be on the outside looking in when your teammates are battling in what I consider the best part of hockey, the playoffs.”
The new CBA lowered the salary cap. It also included a penalty to teams if a player retired before the end of a long-term contract. Each team received two amnesty buyouts, to be used that summer or this summer. Richards, who signed a nine-year, $60 million contract as a free agent in July 2011, was a prime candidate for the Rangers and remains so.
But when Sather conducted his exit interview with Richards last year, he told him he didn’t want to buy him out that summer. He mentioned Messier, who went through a production decline and missed the playoffs in his second season in New York – the season before he won the Cup. Sather also fired Tortorella and replaced him with Alain Vigneault.
“He wasn’t comparing me to Mark Messier or anything like that,” Richards said. “He was just saying, ‘It’s happened before. Don’t worry about it. You can get through this.’ ”
It was a relief, and it was motivation.
“It made you feel like, ‘OK, they’re not giving up,’ ” Richards said. “That kind of catapulted me into the summer, where, ‘All right, I’ve got a big summer ahead of me. I can’t wait to get going.’ I met with AV, and from there, it was just try to get your mind away from thinking about any of that stuff and just learning from it. It took a while. I’m not going to lie to you. It wasn’t a normal start to a season after what happened. But today is a better day, and try to take advantage of that.”
Richards recommitted himself in the off-season. He went on a 12-week program of diet and exercise under trainer Ben Prentiss, who worked with his old Tampa Bay teammate and friend, Martin St-Louis. When he arrived at training camp, he had a clean slate. Teammates saw a difference in his legs and his attitude – a little quicker, more confident, more positive.
Meanwhile, captain Ryan Callahan, the heart-and-soul leader, missed time with an injury early in the season and came back to a reduced role. He was in the last year of his contract. The Rangers offered him as much as $36 million over six years, but he wanted more. Sather, wisely, wouldn’t give it to him. Sather, boldly, traded him to the Lightning at the March 5 deadline in a package that also included what turned out to be two first-round picks.
Sather knew he was getting St-Louis in return; the Lightning captain was an elite scorer who could boost an offense ranked 19th in the league at the time. He also knew he had Richards, Dan Girardi and Marc Staal. (He probably didn't know – or care – that the only teams without a captain or co-captain to win the Cup were the 1970 and '72 Boston Bruins.)
“It was a game day for us, so we were at the rink,” Richards said. “Everybody was around. Cally practiced. He was very close to a lot of guys in that room. Over the years, there’s always different ways you see guys get traded. But to have it where we’re all at the rink, it was a bittersweet day for everybody.”
No one took Callahan's 'C.' Richards helped assume some of the mundane duties of the captaincy with his fellow alternates, Girardi and Staal. The three met with Vigneault to go over things like scheduling. He helped St-Louis as his friend failed to score in his first 14 games as a Ranger, telling him to wait for the playoffs, that he would feel more comfortable. He spoke up as the playoffs progressed. Already, he has talked to his teammates about the distractions of the Cup final – about the demands of family and friends, about the need to stay focused.
“With his experience, it means a lot to a lot of the younger players to have somebody who’s been here before,” said Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, who has won Olympic medals but has never been to the Cup final. “There’s been a lot of times where we’ve been sitting down as a group, talking about different things, and Richie’s been one of the guys that’s been stepping up and has a lot to say.”
The truth is, Richards has not quite regained his form. He had 11 goals and 34 points in 46 games last season; he had 20 goals and 51 points in 82 games this season – the worst points-per-game average of his career.
No matter what happens over the next two weeks, can the Rangers afford to keep a 34-year-old who couldn’t produce more than that while knowing his job was in jeopardy, when they can get out of the last six years of the contract and avoid the risk of future penalties? If Sather was willing to trade his captain down the stretch if he thought it was best for the team, would he shy away from trading his de facto captain even after a Cup win?
But after putting up one goal and one point in 10 playoff games last year, Richards has five goals and 11 points in 20 playoff games this year. He has contributed in ways that cannot be measured. He was the first one in line to receive the Prince of Wales Trophy after the Rangers wrapped up the Eastern Conference final, with Girardi, Staal and Lundqvist next, with the rest of the team behind them.
Richards doesn’t know where he will be next season. But he sounded like a captain when he said: “It would hurt my game and it would hurt the team if I was worrying about it, so I haven’t really thought about it.” And he said it at the Stanley Cup final media day, on Podium No. 1. He is not Mark Messier. But off to his left was a banner of Messier holding the Cup in 1994, larger than life.
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