New York Rangers use $20 million buyout on Brad Richards, who is still useful at the right price

(Photo by Christopher Pasatieri/Getty Images)
(Photo by Christopher Pasatieri/Getty Images)

With the opening of free agency on July 1 closing in, we would like to turn your attention to today’s buyout of Brad Richards by the New York Rangers.

If you’ll recall, Richards headlined the unrestricted free agent class of 2011. He was coming off a solid run over parts of four seasons with the Dallas Stars, peaking at 91 points in 2009-10. In the summer of 2011, he was coming off a season in which he scored 77 points in 72 games.

So the New York Rangers went all in with an offer, as they’re apt to do. Toronto GM Brian Burke took a lot of guff that day for visiting troops in Afghanistan rather than being in New York to meet with Richards and make a pitch. But the Rangers were favored all along and they paid a hefty price for him.

Today, after three years, that nine-year contract is over. The Rangers decided to use their final compliance buyout on Richards, so none of it will count against their salary cap. But it will hit the big market club in the pocket book.

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That’s a lot of cash. $53 million for three years.

Richards simply became a victim of something that afflicts all professional athletes at some time: age. Whether you look at his points or his usage, Richards has been in decline since he got to New York. His scoring has gradually chipped away even though his offensive zone starts have gone from 33.4 percent in Year 1 to 44.1% in Year 3, while his defensive zone starts have dropped from 28.9% to 22.3%, per Extra Skater. He had also lost a skating step and in the post-season he was outmatched at times. It’s not that Richards will be forced into retirement at 34, but he wasn’t close to worth the $6.66 million cap hit his contract demanded.

Now he’s heading back out into the free agent market. And though Richards isn’t the headliner this time he’s still in a position to make some good money. Would it surprise you to learn he was fifth in scoring among this year’s UFA class? Tied with David Legwand, Radim Vrbata and Matt Moulson at 51 points, only Thomas Vanek, Jarome Iginla, Paul Stastny and Jussi Jokinen scored more. Point totals won’t reflect a ranking of who makes the most money this summer (Marian Gaborik and Ryan Callahan will both get more), but there’s bound to be a team out there who sees Richards as a productive center.

Why? Because in the right role and at the right price, Richards still is an asset. If you’re a contending team looking for a third line center, why not kick the tires on him for a short-term deal? There are worse options. Richards was among the Rangers leaders in ice time this season and was a prominent player on their 15th ranked power play. But he slowed near the end of the season, scoring nine points over his last 22 regular season games and seeing his time diminish through the playoffs. In a situation where he plays a milder role every night, maybe he can stay fresher, longer. At the very least, Richards is still a contributing option on the power play. He logged a ton of man advantage time and was the Rangers scoring leader on special teams. And, hey, he was also the New York’s shootout leader this season so he comes with that added bonus.

The question is whether Richards is willing to accept less (money, term and role) to fit in with a contending team’s structure and run at the Cup, or seek out something else. He also stated his desire was to play on the East Coast when he signed his last contract so that his family could watch him play – does that preference change this time around?

The Rangers, meanwhile, have some new-found cap space. With $23.7 million to work with now, they can get to work re-signing their own collection of RFAs and UFAs.

The most pressing will be RFAs Chris Kreider, Derick Brassard and Mats Zuccarello, but the Rangers also have a collection of UFAs who played a solid role in the run to the final. Brian Boyle and Anton Stralman have hinted they are ready to move on if the Rangers can’t give them what they’re after – will the Richards buyout give Boyle the depth chart upgrade he wants, or allow the Rangers to extend Stralman the termed contract he desires? Or does GM Glen Sather simply blow it on another free agent or two? Some would say the latter is most likely to happen here.

There are no more compliance buyouts after this year though, so any regular buyout will have salary cap ramifications. Remember that when July 1 hits and a mediocre UFA class becomes open to the highest bidder.

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