Brad Richards leads the New York Rangers in goal scoring, and it is fair to say that no one saw this coming. Richards' 2012-13 season ended with him spending the final two games in the press box, and many fans thought the 2003-04 Conn Smythe winner was done in New York.
But the Rangers decided not to buy out the 33-year-old center this summer, and so far it appears that they made the right decision. Richards worked very hard this summer, and he wanted to get in better shape to compete this season. He also wanted to prove that he had more to offer the Blueshirts.
It is still too early to tell, but the resurgence of Richards could pay huge dividends for the Rangers.
For starters, it is less of a distraction for the Rangers when Richards is playing well. He has a terrible contract that could be amnestied after this season and that handcuffed the Rangers this past summer.
However, as long as he is playing well, fans will cheer for him instead of analyzing the optics of his contract and how it relates to the NHL CBA.
A major reason for the "rebirth" of Richards is that he has his confidence back, and that is huge for the Rangers.
“In the end, it’s just myself getting prepared,” Richards said. “I think this staff, talking to Alain, is very positive. He uses the ‘clean slate’ thing, but he uses it especially with me — that all’s forgotten. I’m excited to get back to work, and I think he’s excited to help me get back on track. In the end, it’s really all up to me.”
Playing well has also allowed the Rangers to keep him on the left wing, even though it isn't his natural position. The Blueshirts have an abundance of depth at center, and lining up Richards at left wing allows the Rangers to play Derek Stepan on the first line and Derick Brassard on the second line.
This move makes the Rangers stronger as a team, and it gives them the best chance to roll competitive lines.
Richards will be lining up at center against the Anaheim Ducks on Thursday, but that is only because of Rick Nash's absence from the lineup, according to Pat Leonard of the New York Daily News.
If Richards were struggling, bench boss Alain Vigneault would likely try some different combinations because No. 19 is paid to be one of the team's top offensive players. AV hasn't had to do that thus far, which is a good sign for both Richards and the Rangers.
One of the primary reasons that Glen Sather inked Richards to a contract back in 2011 was because of his power-play proficiency. Last year the Rangers had one of the worst units in the league—one of the reasons why Vigneault was brought to Manhattan.
A confident and motivated Richards will be able to anchor the Rangers' power play, a role he thrived in during his tenure with the Tampa Bay Lightning. So far Richards has looked confident on the power play, and his aggressive shooting helped him score a power-play goal against the San Jose Sharks.
A big criticism of Richards last season was his over-thinking, which was exacerbated when he struggled to put up points. What has stood out so far is that Richards is taking more chances, and he is passing the puck less.
Although Richards is one of the league's best passers, he is making more attempts to take over the game when possible.
He also is holding himself accountable, and he is not dwelling on mistakes.
During the postgame show with MSG, Richards talked about the second goal and said, "I was actually going for Brass. I'm very lucky now that I see it—he probably would have had a tough time on his backhand. I shoulda shot, but it went in."
He went on to say that he felt his game was coming around, that he feels more like himself and that his confidence is getting back to where it should be.
Heading into this season, the Rangers knew they could count on players such as Stepan and Nash, but Richards was a wild card. A renaissance season from Richards can only help the Rangers as they attempt to win their first Stanley Cup in 20 years, and it will make them a more dangerous team throughout the season.