Things went so south for Richards under Tortorella last season that he was demoted to fourth-line status and even became a healthy scratch on a few occasions in the 2013 Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Boston Bruins.
This despite scoring 11 goals and 23 assists for 34 points in 46 regular-season games played.
It wasn't that his numbers were particularly unimpressive, it was that he just seemed deflated—a shell of his former self. Maybe the eventual fallout in the postseason with Tortorella, his former head coach when the two won the Stanley Cup in Tampa Bay together, was in the works for a long time.
With the new collective bargaining agreement's introduction of compliance buyouts (two per team) as a way to meet a reduced salary cap of $64.3 million for the 2013-14 season, many had written Richards off as an inevitable buyout in the summer of 2013.
That day never came, and Richards reported to training camp after a grueling summer fitness routine. At one point, he tweeted a picture of his hard work using a "prowler", a weighted sled for intense strength and conditioning training.
Then a funny thing happened: Richards erupted into the 2013-14 season scoring what seemed to be nearly a goal per game in the fall.
He regressed somewhat as the season continued, but still maintains nearly identical statistics to those of his lockout shortened-season: 11 goals, 23 assists for 34 points in just one more game played than last season (47).
Richards is on pace for close to a 60-point season, a mark that he has hit 10 times in his 14 seasons in the league.
When CapGeek.com indicates that Richards alone comes in at a hit of $6.67 million until 2020, it stands to reason that the Rangers may benefit from spending that money elsewhere. Upcoming unrestricted free agents like captain Ryan Callahan and defenseman Dan Girardi will not come cheap, and will no doubt be sought after by teams all across the league.
Teams such as the Florida Panthers, now under new ownership, have been given the green light to spend to the salary cap and these are exactly the types of teams the Rangers need to fear with star-quality UFAs on the horizon.
If money will be the determining factor, the Rangers may lose the battle.
But Richards continues to prove that he is a consistent scorer and losing him would create a huge hole offensively. Can the Rangers, who have struggled to score for several years, afford to lose their star center?
Many thought that the rise of Derek Stepan, who posted an incredible 18 goals, 26 assists for 44 points in 48 games played in 2013, was the emerging No. 1 center on the roster, but this season his numbers are not as impressive: 27 points in 47 games played.
If Stepan doesn't prove to management that he's the clear top-producing center on the roster by the end of this season, it will only strengthen the debate that Richards isn't buyout-worthy.
As the cap ceiling continues to rise, no doubt thanks to a new $5.2 billion broadcasting agreement with Rogers Sportsnet, affording Richards will only become easier in time.
At 33 years old, Richards is far from a young player, but not yet beyond his prime either. As with any aging player, however, two primary concerns arise with any player with a contract as expensive and long as Richards': injury and age.
Only one of those is predictable: Richards will be 40 by the time his contract expires.
Leave it to other stars like Jaromir Jagr, a player many thought saw his last days in the NHL once he left for the KHL in 2008, to defy the odds. At 41 years old, he leads the entire New Jersey Devils team with 36 points. He also leads the team with 23 assists and is second on the team with 13 goals.
Richards has a long way to go before he is out of the woods. In fact, it may already be a foregone conclusion to management that he'll be a buyout this summer for all we know.
Until that day comes, though, he's not going anywhere.
And he shouldn't.
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