Richards joins Rangers mix for season of promise
NEW YORK – Since Brad Richards relocated to New York with a big free-agent deal, he has endured an earthquake and a hurricane.
Those might turn out to be the calm days if he and the Rangers stumble this season.
Richards was the big prize available when the NHL shopping season started on July 1, and the Rangers landed him with a nine-year, $60 million contract that was reminiscent of their big-spending ways before the salary cap. The money will be considered very well spent if the skilled playmaking center clicks with top forward Marian Gaborik, who is looking to get back to his 40-goal days.
In their preseason debut as teammates and linemates, Richards and Gaborik both scored a goal with an assist from the other.
"He's one of the best players in the league," Gaborik said. "You can see he's good at making plays and handling the puck and, also, defensively, he knows where to go."
Gaborik dipped to 22 goals and 26 assists last season during an injury-plagued campaign. In addition to his ailments, Gaborik also lacked consistent linemates and someone deft enough to get him the puck. Because of that, Gaborik often had to carry the puck on his stick instead of having someone set him up to be the finisher he has been during his explosive 11-year NHL career.
"I try to move (the puck) through some give-and-gos and get to some openings," Gaborik said. "We created some chances on the power play and five on five. That's how we've got to work. (Richards) handles the puck well. It's better off with him carrying the puck and making that final play and me hitting the stride."
Gaborik, the previous big-name Rangers acquisition before Richards signed on, had 42 goals and 44 assists two seasons ago in his New York debut when he played in 76 games. With Richards in the middle and health on their side, Gaborik could be poised for another offensive outburst.
He has had six 30-goal seasons and two of at least 40.
The big question is who will play on the left side of this trio. Enigmatic forward Wojtek Wolski, now on his third team since 2009, got the first shot in Friday night's 4-3 exhibition win at New Jersey and performed well. He earned an assist on Richards' first-period goal.
Richards' transition to the Rangers after three-plus seasons with the Dallas Stars should be smoother that many other relocations because of his familiarity with New York coach John Tortorella.
They teamed up for a successful run in Tampa Bay that culminated in the Lightning winning the Stanley Cup in 2004 and Richards skating off with the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP.
While he found good times in the warmth of Florida and Texas, the Canadian native longed for more of a hockey setting once he hit the free-agent market. Toronto was definitely in the mix, but the excitement of New York won out.
"I am looking forward to getting back to the East. It's a little easier on the body and you just feel like you're playing in some bigger markets more often, which makes it a lot more fun," Richards said. "Everybody is making a big deal of playing for Torts. I wanted to play in New York also. If he wasn't here, they still would've been a very big option.
"It's a great city, an Original Six team which is something I haven't been able to play on. That was just a bonus, something that helped. Either way, it would've been a good fit the way things are going here."
New York also added toughness with the signing of former Pittsburgh and New Jersey forward Mike Rupp, who along with Brandon Prust will be counted on to fill the enforcer role. The Rangers open this season still mourning Derek Boogaard, the team's former tough guy who died in May after his only season with New York.
The Rangers returned to the playoffs last season for the fifth time in six years after a one-year absence, but failed again to get out of the first round. New York has been eliminated by Washington in both postseason appearances under Tortorella and has gotten to the second round only twice during this run.
Just making the playoffs might not be good enough anymore, especially with a star-studded lineup that carries great expectations.
The Rangers could be poised for a long stretch of success because their core — outside of the 31-year-old Richards and 29-year-old Gaborik — is very young. They are led up front by dynamic forward Ryan Callahan, who at 26 is taking over as captain for the retired Chris Drury, the feisty Brandon Dubinsky, Derek Stepan, and Artem Anisimov.
Callahan missed the series against Washington because of a broken leg, an injury that nearly cost New York a spot in the playoffs. The Rangers got in on the final day when they beat New Jersey and got some help from Tortorella's old Lightning team that knocked out the Carolina Hurricanes.
Richards will be counted on to impart his experience on his new spry teammates, too.
"I kind of had a little bit of that role the last few years in Dallas, playing with some young guys on my team and on my line," he said. "Our team was kind of going in that same youth movement there, too. I enjoy it. It's fun.
"I had a lot of help when I was young and remember all those days and experiences of how veterans helped me. I try to do the same with the young guys now. It's a huge help when you're young if you know people are on your side."
The Rangers also have talented youth on defense, too, but they start the season with concern as Marc Staal is dealing with post-concussion symptoms that stem from a hit delivered by his brother in a game in February. Staal has already been ruled out of New York's upcoming exhibition games in Europe, and is questionable at best for the season opener against Los Angeles on Oct. 7 in Sweden.
In addition to Staal, the Rangers are anchored on the blue line by Michael Sauer and Dan Girardi, with Ryan McDonagh and Steve Eminger. Michael Del Zotto and others filling out the unit.
As is always the case, Rangers defensemen have a bit of a safety net behind them with stalwart Henrik Lundqvist in goal. Lundqvist extended his NHL record with his sixth consecutive season with at least 30 wins to start a career.
But this season will already have a different wrinkle to it for Lundqvist, who will play the first two games of the regular season in his native Sweden. That will be just the start of a long haul for the Rangers, who will play their first seven games on the road — including a four-game trip out west after they return to North America — before their home opener on Oct. 27 against Toronto.
Whether the Rangers are ready to make a jump this season into a serious Stanley Cup contender remains to be seen, but with veterans such as Richards, Gaborik and Lundqvist steering the ship of youngsters led by Captain Callahan, New York seems to be built for the long run.
"It's not a one-time thing with this team. You can see it growing," Richards said. "There is going to be a window of years here that if we can keep growing, keep getting better — it would be great if it was this year, but it's not just this year that I am looking at. When I signed here it was because they are building something here and I am still young enough to be a part of that."