A few weeks ago, an article was published on this website outlining all the reasons why the New York Rangers’ prized free agent acquisition this past offseason, Brad Richards, will succeed on Broadway. All of the points that were made most certainly have merit, and one could argue that through 17 games, Richards has made a largely positive impact despite playing at less than a point-per-game pace.
With the team sitting six games over the .500 mark, Richards has proven to be an excellent leader, mentor, distributor and teammate.
As any sports fan knows, however, free agency can be a risky endeavor. More often than not, free agent acquisitions fail to pan out mainly due to overpayment, old age or simple failure to produce consistently in the face of increased expectation. Contracts are often payment for past performance, with teams drawn into what a player has done throughout his career and not necessarily what he will do going forward.
After signing a nine-year, $60 million contract this past summer, Richards became the highest player in the NHL. While no Rangers fan realistically anticipates production at a level equivalent to the top goal scorers in the league, I think that most would expect a point-per-game player and, more importantly, a leader on a winning team.
With that said, I wanted to examine some of the factors that might prevent Richards from sustaining success in New York over the course of the next nine seasons. Will Richards be the next Jaromir Jagr for this team, or will he join the likes of Chris Drury and Scott Gomez in a long line of free agents that could not cut it in New York?
Let’s take a look at the five reasons why Brad Richards may not live up to his contract.
Player evaluation is more difficult in hockey than almost any other sport primarily due to an overall lack of statistical pervasiveness. General managers can generally use goals, points and shots as well as more peripheral statistical categories like blocked shots, hits, shot percentage and average time on ice to form an opinion on a specific player.
More often than not, however, a player’s value is comprised largely of an intangible factor, something that cannot be statistically accounted for, but instead must be observed over the course of a long season.
Hidden behind Brad Richards’ nearly point-per-game career and his remarkable Conn Smythe playoff run in 2003-2004 is the possibility that he is just an average even strength hockey player. Coming into this season, Richards boasted a minus-72 career plus/minus rating, including a dreadful minus-27 in the 2007-2008 season, which resulted in his departure from the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Over the course of his career, Richards has relied heavily on the power-play to boost his point totals, with power-play goals and assists accounting for nearly 43 percent of his total point production. Compare that to a guy like Joe Thornton, a similar distribution type player, who records only 36 percent of his points with the man advantage.
Richards’ shot totals are consistently high; however, he has only managed to convert shots on net into goals at a rate of 8.9 percent throughout his career. Again, to make a comparison to a similar type player, Henrik Sedin has connected at a rate of 13.2 percent.
What do these statistics mean? My interpretation leads me to believe that Richards is an extremely intelligent player that may not have the natural skill to sustain success over the length of his contract. He is a guy that values getting the puck to the net and is very much a student of the game. He has excellent ice vision, especially with the man advantage, which has vaulted him to become one of the premier power-play quarterbacks in the league.
However, his shot is relatively weak and inaccurate compared to some of the other top players in the game. His ability to create off the offensive rush is somewhat limited, as he is a guy that needs to slow the game down to a manageable speed. Despite the fact that his play in the defensive end has been solid so far this season, his career plus/minus is a clear indication that he may be a defensive liability at the center position.
Richards is without a doubt one of the premiere power-play forwards in the league. Even strength, however, may be a different story. Come playoff time, when penalties are scarce and the amount of open ice is limited by tighter defensive systems, Richards will need to elevate his game as a playmaker, distributor and scorer without the consistent benefit of the man advantage.
With all due respect to Marian Gaborik, it is clear that Brad Richards was brought to New York to be the primary option on the offensive end. As great of a scorer as Gaborik can be, he lacks the physicality and distribution ability necessary to be the focal point of the offense.
Richards’ career point totals (0.93 points per game) certainly indicate that he has the track record to perform as the No. 1 guy on Broadway. You cannot help but notice, however, that he has never scored 30 goals in his career. His career high in points (91) is very respectable, but nowhere near the level of the top players in the NHL.
Even more alarming perhaps is Richards’ history of getting to the playoffs. He got there four times as a member of the Tampa Bay Lightning, but most observers would put that more on the shoulders of Vinny Lecavalier and Marty St. Louis.
In four years in Dallas, Richards only cracked the top eight in the Western Conference one time, the 2007-2008 season in which he only played 12 regular season games after a trade from Tampa Bay.
There is no doubting that the guy has put up big numbers, but what do those numbers have to show for themselves? In three full seasons as the main guy in Dallas, he failed to make the playoffs even once.
Should we expect more of the same in New York over the next nine seasons, or is Richards ready to shoulder the majority of the load brought on by increased pressure and expectations?
Do not get me wrong, the Rangers have a good team, a very good team. In fact, this roster has the potential to be the best Rangers team since the lockout. They are right on the edge of being a true Stanley Cup Contender and hope to take the leap into that class as the season progresses.
What this team is not, however, is a team built on talent and skill. As much potential as we might see in young players like Ryan Callahan, Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov and Derek Stepan, the group has only one 50 point season between them. Marian Gaborik is the only other Rangers player that can be considered a bonafide scorer, but the chemistry between he and Brad Richards has been lukewarm at best.
Mark Messier had Adam Graves and Alexei Kovalev. He was also supported by ample scoring depth from both the offensive and defensive players. Richards does not have that luxury on this team.
The foundation of this team is a strong defensive system and a sense of grit and work ethic instilled by coach John Tortorella. It is not a team designed to rack up goals and, in turn, is not a team designed to support the accumulation of massive point totals.
Richards is going to have his take his points as they come and refuse to lose patience. He now plays in an organization that values the grinder more so than the scorer. He is surrounded by bulldogs, guys who will stop at nothing to win despite the fact that they do not possess the world’s best set of hands.
Richards may have to learn to be satisfied with season point totals in the low 70s. Rangers fans are going to have to learn to live with that as well, realizing that Richards’ impact may far exceed whatever point total he posts at season’s end.
The injury concern with Brad Richards is really a two-pronged issue, the first being whether Richards is an injury prone player. To answer that question, we must look back at Richards’ career to provide further clarification.
In the aftermath of the signing, many fans pointed to an injury history that included a concussion and a broken wrist. Those two injuries caused Richards to miss 38 games over his last three seasons in Dallas, but may not tell the whole story.
In six full seasons with the Tampa Bay Lightning, Richards missed only two regular season games and was considered to be one of the most durable players in the NHL.
This point brings us to the second injury issue, the inherent concern with injury to older players. The numbers do not lie; Richards has experienced more injury issues in the latter half of his career than he had as a younger player. As freak as these injuries may have been, it is not encouraging sign for a guy who will still be gracing the Garden ice at the ripe old age of 40.
Regardless of who the player is, signing a 31-year-old to a nine-year contract has its pitfalls. If you ask Glen Sather, I am sure he would tell you that a five to six year deal would have been much more preferable. Unfortunately, however, the business of sports often makes it necessary for teams to make long-run concessions for the benefit of the short-term.
It is more than likely that the Rangers will be dealing with an over-the-hill, injury prone Brad Richards six or seven years from now. Hopefully, for the organization’s sake, they can reap the benefits of his contract while he still has young legs under him.
Brad Richards was brought to New York to win the Cup, plain and simple. Yes, we as fans expect point production as well, but when all is said and done, Richards’ nine years as a Ranger will be defined by the playoff success of the team.
The reality of the situation, however, is that even if Richards plays out his contract at a high level (say a few top 10 finishes in terms of individual points), the quality of teams in the Eastern Conference may prevent the Rangers from translating his acquisition into playoff success.
As long as Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Alexander Ovechkin are around, the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Washington Capitals will be the teams to beat in the East. The Philadelphia Flyers are a good young team with a nice mix of veteran talent and a solid goaltender.
The Tampa Bay Lightning, with Steven Stamkos, Marty St. Louis and Vinny Lecavalier, will be a force to be reckoned with for years to come. There is a ton of competition out there, and we have not even mentioned the Stanley Cup Champion Boston Bruins or the Buffalo Sabres led by goaltender Ryan Miller.
Sports are unpredictable, and that is why we love it. Glen Sather brought in Brad Richards to put the Rangers in position to be a Stanley Cup Contender. It looks good on paper, but only time will tell whether Richards and the Rangers will get the lucky bounces, avoid the back-breaking injuries and have it all come together for an extended playoff run at some point in the next nine seasons.