Whether the New York Rangers hoist the Stanley Cup in the next week or not, one thing won't change: Rangers' President and General Manager Glen Sather's decision to use his franchise's last remaining cap-compliancy buyout on Brad Richards.
While this is purely speculative, it is largely expected. Many, such as myself, deem it inevitable as Richards has failed to deliver the performance worthy of a Conn Smythe winner, Stanley Cup Champion, and his cap hit of $6.67M through 2019-20 (source: CapGeek.com).
Make no mistake—Richards has been a huge producer on the scoring sheet throughout the regular season for the Rangers, seated third overall on the team with 51 points. However, he has been relatively flat in the postseason, ranked eighth with 11 points.
Many credit Richards with intangibles, such as veteran leadership—which is completely fair given that he has stepped up as the de facto team captain since the Rangers traded away Ryan Callahan for Martin St. Louis at the trade deadline this spring. Many of Richards' teammates even cite his increased role in the locker room, something that Callahan could not quite provide.
But really, a cap-compliancy buyout at this point is just the only reasonable approach to take with Richards, who most recently has been demoted to the fourth line. While Richards will spin the demotion as actually increasing his five-on-five ice time, the reality is that Richards, with a cap hit of $6.67 annually for another six years, is simply far too expensive to become a fourth line grinder.
We saw a similar situation play out with former Rangers bench boss John Tortorella, who infamously did the very same thing late in the postseason last year, and eventually scratched Richards twice before being eliminated by the Boston Bruins. Richards even declared it "the lowest point" in his career. Now, Alain Vigneault finds himself in the same troubling situation with Richards: demote, bench, or scratch?
Sather has gone on record, prior to the start of the Stanley Cup Final series this year, saying that he's "thought about it a lot", using the compliancy buyout on Richards. However, "it’s not something that we’re thinking about right now. We’re focused on what we’re doing, what the team is doing, how we’re going to play, who we’re playing against."
Richards, to his credit, is keeping a positive attitude about the entire situation. "It’s not the right time to think about it. 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."
Problem is, Richards is tanking in the postseason (for the second straight year), most visibly against the Los Angeles Kings, who hold a 3-1 series advantage over New York. Often, Richards looks defeated (to his own admission), lost, and out of energy against the fast and hard-charging Kings. The speed, talent, and depth of the Kings have very nearly eliminated the Rangers, and Richards—despite all those intangible veteran leadership qualities—is simply too expensive to retain.
Factor in restricted free agents Derick Brassard, Chris Kreider and Mats Zuccarello (Zuccarello as the team-leading scorer with 59 points this regular season), and there simply isn't a way the Rangers afford to retain most of their young blood and not buy out Richards.
Let's not even get into the potential devastating cap-recapture penalties New York would face should Richards choose to retire early (which appears increasingly likely).
I will always be grateful for the veteran leadership Richards provided this Rangers squad, especially when they needed him most. There is also the incredible, selfless humanitarian acts Richards performed after the New York metropolitan area was devastated by Hurricane Sandy.
The last thing Richards can do to help this team moving forward is to become the next cap-compliancy victim.
As they say in the business world: "It's nothing personal, Brad—it's just business."