It was almost three years ago that 2004 Conn Smythe-winning center Brad Richards was courted for his services, and he probably thought it would be the last time he had to go through the process.
Richards will go through it at least one more time, albeit with less fanfare, as the New York Rangers announced that they have used their final compliance to buy out on their top free-agent prize from 2011, according to a tweet from ESPN's Pierre LeBrun.
The move was expected because of the potential recapture penalties that the Rangers could face, and the Blueshirts could use the nearly $7 million occupied on the cap by Richards to retain free agents.
Many fans will rejoice that Richards is gone because he made too much money, was too slow and was not the No. 1 center they thought they were getting on July 2, 2011. Similar feelings were shared when Chris Drury was also bought out, and like Richards, the move had to be made despite the intangibles brought to the table.
Although the mood is positive now among Ranger fans, Brad Richards will be missed. Fans were at their wit's end watching him on the power play in the Stanley Cup Final, but replacing him is going to be difficult.
Richards spent the last three years with the Rangers, and in 210 games he scored 56 goals and recorded 95 assists for 151 points. For those keeping score at home, that factors out to be an average of 0.72 points per game.
In contrast, Richards posted 70 goals, 157 assists and 227 points in 220 games with the Dallas Stars. Richards was a younger man then, but fans expected to get a 70-to-75-point center during his time in New York.
It is obvious that Richards is declining and is no longer the player he was in Dallas or Tampa, but he was still a center who contributed 50 or more points and brought tons of leadership to the team. Henrik Lundqvist gets the lion’s share of credit for the Rangers’ Stanley Cup appearance, but Richards is a huge part of why the Rangers are where they are as a franchise.
His signing in 2011 saw a change in the organization that put the team into a win-now mode. Things didn’t work out as planned, but a Final appearance this year is something to be proud of.
If the Rangers make the Final in the next few years, that is also something for which Richards can earn some credit. For the past three years Richards served as an alternate captain under Ryan Callahan. Though Richards was a sage veteran with tons of knowledge, savvy and experience, he was a good teammate in deferring to his captain and supporting him.
Callahan was traded for Richards’ best friend and former teammate Martin St. Louis, Richards became the captain, but he always was one in spirit, according to Katie Strang of ESPN New York:
The 34-year-old veteran might wear an “A” for the Blueshirts, but he is no longer in a secondary leadership role. He is, without question, THE guy. And for the record, it was Richards who instructed the Rangers not to touch the trophy. They didn't.
Richards was savvy enough to recognize the void when Callahan left back in March. Whereas Callahan bounced ideas off him before, Richards was always respectful in deferring to Callahan’s status as the team’s official captain. He has since become emboldened to take on the heavy lifting that comes with leading a team through an emotional playoff run.
There was a reason why Richards was considered for the captaincy back in 2011, and Strang’s words certainly reinforce what the 2004 Conn Smythe winner meant to the team.
Alain Vigneault talked about what Richards meant to the team, per Bleacher Report's Dave Lozo, and after reading the head coach’s comments, it is obvious that there will be a big void to replace:
"I would say to you that even when Ryan was here, since day one, Brad has been without a doubt one of my top go‑to guys," Vigneault said to the media after practice on Wednesday. "He came here with a great attitude. He came here with great work ethic. He's been a really strong role model since day one since I've been here. I've really leaned on him and his experience."
"When Ryan left for Tampa, Brad was getting a very good friend (Martin St. Louis), so he helped, obviously, build that relationship with the rest of his teammates. But since the first day this year, he's been a really big part of our team on the ice and in the dressing room and off the ice."
It is clear what Richards meant to the Rangers. We live in a salary-cap world where every dollar counts, where advanced statistics are becoming more prevalent, a world in which there is no shortage of people to speak up when a particular player isn’t providing sufficient value based on their salary.
Based on his performance on the ice, I can’t argue that Richards was worth keeping. It was a business decision that impacts the Rangers’ present and future, and one that was easy to make.
Richards should be remembered as a great Ranger if this team wins a Stanley Cup in the next few years because he laid the groundwork and shared knowledge with this team to change the way they think about the game. One would assume that St. Louis will pick up where Richards left off regardless of whether or not he wears a letter on his chest.
There is no question about Richards landing on his feet because he is still a decent hockey player and a great veteran to have, but there are questions of who can possibly fill his skates. There aren’t many centers available in the Rangers' price range, and there is no one who can bring the leadership and other intangibles Richards wore on his sleeve.
It was a necessary move, but Richards will surely be missed next season.