In July of 2011, the Rangers signed Brad Richards to a nine-year contract worth $60 million. Richards was the biggest prize in that summer's crop of free agents, but the signing differed, at least a little, from many of the Rangers' big-money free agent signings of the past. The Rangers team that Richards was joining already had a number of important parts in place, and the signing of Richards was seen as one of the final pieces in the construction of a team that could contend for a Stanley Cup.
The Rangers are perpetually looking for a top-line center, just like they're perpetually looking for a puck-moving defenseman. And not only would Richards fill one of those needs, his advertised ability to play the point on the power play was supposed to lessen the need for a blue-liner who could quarterback things with the man advantage.
The Rangers hadn't actually accomplished much in the seasons prior to the Richards signing, but they'd been steadily stocking their roster with young (and relatively cheap) talent, and the hope was that signing an established player like Richards would eventually help lift the Rangers from a borderline playoff team to a legitimate contender. Their window of opportunity was opening, and Glen Sather was going all in.
But the thing about Richards' contract is that it was designed to help the Rangers during this brief window of opportunity -- one that would last three or four years at the most. Richards was 31 when he signed it, and though its extra-long duration had more to do with bringing down the annual cap hit than with how long the Rangers actually wanted to lock Richards down, the Rangers had to know that he wouldn't remain an elite player for the entirety of the deal. They were signing him to be an elite player for a few years while their window was open, and they'd deal with the later years of his contract some other time. If they could win a Cup during the contract's first half, the second half would be a lot easier to swallow.
This isn't said purely in hindsight, by the way: I wrote about how the Rangers may eventually regret Richards's contract just days after he signed it, but I understood at the time what they were doing. They were overpaying to fill a need in a short term, and on a team that appeared poised to make a real run at a championship in the short term, it was a gamble that could be defended.
The Rangers made that gamble less than two years ago. Or to put it another way, Richards has played out less than a quarter of the contract. And it's altogether possible that Richards will be playing his last game as a Ranger sometime this spring.
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It was inevitable that Richards's decline would begin at some point over the course of his contract, but the Rangers hoped it wouldn't happen so soon. Richards's points-per-game totals have dropped in each of his past three seasons, and after two years of averaging more than a point a game in Dallas, he's fallen below that line in both of his two seasons in New York. His numbers this year were especially concerning: His 0.24 goals per game were his lowest total in ten years, his 0.50 assists per game matched a career low, and his 0.74 points per game set a new career low.
In other words, a year after Richards turned in his least productive year in a decade, he turned in the least productive season of his career. Richards helped redeem his unspectacular regular season last year with a stellar postseason, in which he led the Rangers with fifteen points and scored one of the most dramatic goals in recent franchise history. (I'd suggest watching that goal -- in the closing seconds of Game 5 of the conference semis -- with the audio synched to Kenny Albert's radio call.) And part of his appeal was that he was a former Conn Smythe winner, so as recently as last spring, the Rangers could convince themselves that they were getting what they expected out of Richards.
But Richards is 33 years old now, and it appears that his days as an elite center may be over. Not every year will necessarily be as disastrous as this one, but at the very least he's trending in the wrong direction. The Rangers may have hoped that Richards could remain in his prime for a good chunk of his contract, but even that now seems optimistic.
And something else happened just as Richards was reaching a new career low. From the moment they signed Richards until the beginning of this lockout-shortened season, things had been going according to the Rangers' master plan. Last year's team -- with a roster assembled the right way -- exceeded expectations by finishing with the conference's best record and advancing to the Eastern finals for the first time since 1997. The following summer, they landed elite scorer Rick Nash in a trade, and they were considered a real contender for the Stanley Cup when the season finally began.
But 2013 hasn't been going as planned. They didn't clinch a playoff berth until the season's final week, and have been inconsistent so far in these playoffs, knocking off Washington in seven games before dropping the first two games of their series to Boston. After taking several steps forward in the recent years, the Rangers look at this point to have taken a step back. The point of bringing Richards in was that the end of his prime would coincide with the team's window, and while that window isn't necessarily closed -- they're not even done yet this season -- their chances of capturing a title in the next year or two appear worse than they did this time last year.
Richards, of course, is not entirely to blame for the Rangers' struggles this season, but he has been especially bad of late. After finishing the regular season strong -- he had six goals and sixteen points in April, though he benefited from a little puck luck in compiling those numbers -- he's been quiet in the playoffs. He finished the first round with one goal and no assists, and lately John Tortorella has taken to playing him on the fourth line, a classic Torts move that screams "I don't know what to do to get this player going, so let's just try this."
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The good news -- if you can call it that -- is that the Rangers have an out. Each team is allowed two buyouts under the new CBA, and though the Rangers have already used one on Wade Redden, they could use the other on Richards this summer or next. Considering that the NHL's salary cap drops next season, and considering the Rangers have a number of restricted and unrestricted free agents due for raises in the next couple of seasons, buying out Richards helps them out financially -- even after they've already rid themselves of Marian Gaborik's pricey contract for next season.
Even if Richards were still producing at an acceptable rate, he made far more sense on the team that was on the verge of contending for a Stanley Cup. As is, he's on a team that… well, who knows? Maybe they've got a chance in the next couple of years. Maybe they still have a chance this year. But maybe they don't. There's less reason for optimism than there was a year ago.
But that's moot, because Richards isn't producing at an acceptable rate any longer. This isn't a judgment based on the small sample size of the 2013 playoffs, or even just the 2013 season. It's based on the unfortunate trend of the last few years. Some seasons may still be better than others for Richards, and a bounce-back year, under more standard circumstances than this shortened 2013 season, isn't out of the question. But there's no denying that Richards is heading in the wrong direction with seven years remaining on his contract. And seven years is an eternity in sports.
The Rangers have the option, if they can make it work under the cap, of postponing a decision on Richards until after the 2013-14 season, at which point they'd again be allowed to use the last of their so-called compliance buyouts. Doing so would give Richards a chance to bounce back from his ugly 2013 season -- but it'll take more than one year for Richards to prove that the last few seasons haven't been the beginning a downward trend. And the Rangers don't have that kind of time to evaluate him.
At best, they can hope to squeeze a couple more solid years out of Richards. At worst, they'll opt not to buy him out in 2013 or 2014, and regret it later.
The Rangers gambled once already on Richards, but that's a bet they can't afford to make.