Heading into the 2011 free agent signing period, it was abundantly clear that Brad Richards was the most coveted asset by far. It took more than a day for him to decide, but it came as little surprise when Richards ultimately chose to sign with the New York Rangers for nine years and $60 million. A top-notch playmaking center with elite-level skating speed, Richards should be a great fit on the Blueshirts’ first line alongside sniper Marian Gaborik.
“All the options that I was looking at were good, but to play on an Original Six team, I haven’t had a chance to do that yet in my career,” Richards said on a conference call to announce his signing with the Rangers. “Stable ownership is important as well, I’ve been bitten a few times (Tampa and Dallas), and it’s great to see an owner who’s doing what it takes to win. With what Glen (Sather) and Torts (John Tortorella) are doing, it works, and I can see how he’s bringing that young team along in New York. When you factor in all of that, this was the right fit for me.”
Another important factor for Richards – a native of Prince Edward Island – was moving back to the East Coast.
“I’ve got a grandfather who’s 93, he still watches every game, and he wasn’t too happy about the West Coast games,” Richards said.
Another huge factor behind Richards choosing the Rangers was head coach Tortorella. Back in 2004 with the Tampa Bay Lightning, Richards won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP while playing under Tortorella. Richards often comes up big in the most important games – in 63 career playoff games, he’s tallied 21 goals and 41 assists for 62 points – and he was never bigger than in 2004. In that year’s playoffs, he scored 12 goals and 14 assists for 26 points in 23 games, including an NHL-record seven playoff game-winning goals.
“Well, I know when it came up yesterday, there are just some things that we need with our club and he brings quite a few of those things,” Tortorella said of Richards. “I coached Richie for seven years. I know him, he knows me, it was pretty much straightforward. I did outline what his role would be – Glen also did that as far as the organization – and you go from there.”
While it’s easy to get excited about Richards’ considerable attributes, it’s necessary to temper that enthusiasm with a healthy dose of skepticism and concern.
The Rangers have had absolutely terrible luck signing high-priced free agents. While GM Glen Sather should be praised for his fearlessness, it’s worth noting that virtually every big-ticket acquisition has worked out quite poorly. From Bobby Holik (five years, $45 million) to Wade Redden (six years, $39 million) and from Scott Gomez (seven years, $51.5 million) to Chris Drury (five years, $35.25 million), a lot of money has been spent to yield shockingly little.
Although Marian Gaborik’s (five years, $37.5 million) first season on Broadway was an unmitigated success (42 goals, 44 assists, 86 points, +15 rating in 76 games), his second year with the Rangers left quite a bit to be desired (48 points in 62 games, only 22 goals). Perhaps Richards will be the magic elixir for Gaborik’s recent woes – the two players do appear to be quite well-matched as linemates – but it’s impossible to know for sure until they hit the ice together.
Moreover, Richards’ health is another big question mark. He missed a considerable amount of time in 2010-11 due to a severe concussion, and there’s no question that each serious head injury significantly increases a player’s susceptibility to future head injuries. Hopefully, the concussion he suffered on February 13th was an aberration and not a sign of things to come.
“I feel great,” Richards said. “I know there’s a lot of talk about those things (concussion), but that’s all in the past. I’ve still got another two months in front of me, and I’ll be 100% for sure.”
In the short term, the Rangers are unquestionably better with Richards than without him. He immediately becomes their first line center, and should give their sputtering offense a desperately-needed spark. But from a long-term perspective, this deal is far more difficult to evaluate. Not only is there Richards’ injury history to contend with, but the CBA is expiring on September 15, 2012, and it’s quite uncertain what the ramifications of Richards’ contract will be for 2012-13 and beyond. And given that he’s signed through his 40th birthday, it’s also fair to wonder whether his high-speed game will be as effective when his wheels inevitably begin to slow.