The new collective bargaining agreement awarded all 30 NHL teams two amnesty buyouts to help them cut salary and fit under the lowered cap. The Rangers used their first in the winter—after receiving special permission—on Wade Redden, and it was believed Richards would be next up come the summer.
But he wasn't and we don’t have a solid answer as to why not. Based on performance alone, Richards should have been terminated. Although he registered 34 points in 46 games during the regular season, his stats were somewhat padded thanks to a late-season run in which he posted 11 points in six games.
The truth is he was abysmal all season long. Even useless at times. Oh, and speaking of useless, did you catch him in the playoffs? One point in 10 games. He was even a healthy scratch for the team’s final two playoff contests, when then-head coach John Tortorella preferred the likes of Kris Newbury and Micheal Haley.
There’s more to consider, though. In the modern age it's not all about performance. Hockey is a business now more than ever, and with a strict cap and the new cap recapture clause—a complicated algorithm which basically ensures the teams that signed players to cap-circumventing, front-loaded deals remain on the hook for the player’s salary even if he is traded or retires before the end of his contract—players like Richards become a liability.
The bottom line is if Richards isn't bought out next summer, he’ll be a Ranger for life. So the question now is can Richards justify his contract, and all that comes with it, in 2013-14?
It’ll be tough. The Rangers can literally remove themselves from a toxic situation with the snap of a finger next summer. But if they were interested in doing that, then why didn't they back in July?
We can only speculate, really, but there are a couple of reasons why keeping Richards around through next year is a good idea.
First, he gives the Rangers serious depth at center. With the first two lines presumed to be centered by Derek Stepan and Derick Brassard, respectively, Richards would slot in on the third line. Playing against lesser competition could help Richards get his game back on track, but the idea of him playing there gives incoming coach Alain Vigneault options.
And speaking of Vigneault, don’t think for a second he didn't have something to do with Richards remaining in the picture. Of course, there’s no evidence that he actually did, but Vigneault is a veteran coach who is known to get the best out of his skill players; maybe he thinks Richards can still offer something of value to the club.
Having Richards in the fold isn't terrible, unless he were injured during the buyout period. Then he couldn't actually be bought out. And considering the Rangers were willing to sit Redden out all of last year to protect him until July—before special permission was given to allow the early buyout of his contract—maybe the Rangers have plans to keep Richards around past next summer.
But he’ll have to prove he still belongs.
He’s a $60-million man whose cap hit is $6.66 million; if he doesn't put up numbers that reflect his contract, he’s gone. The Rangers can’t afford to carry all this baggage for a player on the decline just three years into a nine-year deal.
Furthermore, everyone is a free agent next summer. Well, not exactly, but let’s just say Richards were to stay on the payroll next summer. He would be just one of six players under contract. Just six. Everyone else would be a restricted or unrestricted free agent, including Ryan Callahan and Henrik Lundqvist. With Richards’ $6.66 million off the payroll, it would be a lot easier to re-sign everyone.
Richards is going to heave to tear it up. I’m talking near point-per-game pace. He was signed to be an offensive dynamo and the team’s first-line center. If he can’t do that he needs to go.
But let’s imagine he actually does put up 82 points (he won’t). Should he still be bought out? He showed he has the ability to go completely invisible in his first couple of seasons in New York, what’s going to happen three, four, five years down the line? I think we all know.
Seeing as this is an opinion piece, what I feel and what the Rangers’ brass feels is probably not the same. They chose to keep him around for at least another season; there’s clearly some belief in the front office that Richie is still a part of the team’s long-term plans.
But we don’t know what goes on behind the scenes. So, my opinion is that there’s nothing Richards can do to save himself. He’s done next July. I understand why the team wanted to keep him around for another season—because they think this team can still make a Cup run—but things aren't going to get better past this season for Richards. And the last thing this team needs right now is a toxic situation.
It doesn't matter if he scores 82 points, or returns to the first line, or recaptures his power-play magic; he has to go. He’s a consummate professional and a genuinely nice person, but the league’s new infrastructure has done him in and his time in New York is almost up.