Decision on Richards’ future looming for Rangers

Facing the lowest moment of his career last May and rumours were abound of buyout talks, Brad Richards is now part of the MVP conversation in the NHL playoffs, lifting the Rangers offence as they hope to lift the Stanley Cup.

LOS ANGELES — Complicated. It really doesn’t get much more complicated than this.

You have Glen Sather, plopped in front of the national media on the eve of the Stanley Cup Final, speaking at length about Brad Richards. In one breath the New York Rangers general manager is praising the veteran centre for becoming the de facto captain of the team. In the other, he’s fielding a question about the possibility of buying him out this summer.

“I’ve thought about it a lot,” Sather conceded Tuesday at Staples Center.

The topic simply can’t be avoided, even with the Rangers battling the Los Angeles Kings for the Stanley Cup. The NHL’s buyout window opens as early as June 15 — or 48 hours after this series finishes if it stretches beyond five games — and closes June 30. A decision is looming.

That it hangs in the air while Richards is fighting to bring a championship to New York is … unique. To say the least.

Further complicating matters is a relationship between Richards and Sather that seems to be full of mutual respect. If this wasn’t a business, if this wasn’t a league with a salary cap, you get the feeling that this wouldn’t be a topic up for discussion.

“I really can’t make any comments about what’s going to happen during the summer,” Sather said. “It’s not something that we need to get into talking with. He’s with the New York Rangers.”

It was only three seasons ago that Richards made the move to Manhattan. He could have written his own ticket as the top free agent on the market — the Kings made a huge push for his services — and ended up choosing the Rangers, in part, because he saw an organization with all-world goalie Henrik Lundqvist and figured that they would be a contender for years to come.

The $60-million, nine-year contract they offered was also a massive incentive, naturally, but that deal would have been available to him just about anywhere. It was also a product of its time, with most of the money being paid in the first few years.

That’s precisely why the Rangers are likely to terminate the contract before the end of the month. They have the ability to do so with one of the two compliance buyouts granted to every team when the latest collective bargaining agreement was ratified and would be bearing a huge risk if they elected not to.

The Richards deal was one of those targeted by the new cap recapture rule and would see the Rangers penalized by more than $16-million over four years if he retired in 2016. That could be crippling. Needless to say, Sather isn’t a big fan of the sanction introduced in the latest CBA.

“We could have a long debate about that one,” he said. “Amazing how rules change sometimes. It’s not something I can comment on. That’s something you’d have to ask Mr. Bettman.

“They decided to do something and we had no influence on it at all.”

The timing of this discussion is of particular interest because Richards’ value to the Rangers has been particularly high since captain Ryan Callahan was sent to Tampa Bay for Marty St. Louis at the trade deadline. The 34-year-old made a conscious decision at that point to take on more of a leadership role and ended up being one of the players coach Alain Vigneault leaned on to gauge the pulse of the team.

Should they win the Stanley Cup, he might be the player called on to accept the trophy.

“When you have a captain, you defer,” Richards said. “Now it’s more by committee.”

It has been a long road back to this point for a man who was awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy in 2004 after leading the Tampa Bay Lightning to a championship. Like many young players, he figured it would be an annual occurrence.

As recently as last spring, Richards had to wonder if he would ever be here again. That’s when former coach John Tortorella made him a healthy scratch for the final two games of a second-round loss to Boston, something Richards now describes as “the lowest point in my career.”

However, things started to turn at his exit meeting with Sather. The buyout question had surfaced back then, but the veteran GM quickly told him that he wanted to give him another chance. Sather mentioned how much former pupil Mark Messier had struggled initially in New York and reminded him about how well things turned out for him in the end.

That meant a lot.

“It made me feel like ‘OK, they’re not giving up’ and that kind of catapulted me into the summer,” Richards said.

He responded with a more productive season and clearly wants to continue holding up his end of the bargain. He knows the Rangers are counting on him. That includes Sather, who Richards likened to a wise grandfather presiding over the organization.

“The thing about Glen, you can talk about shoes, wine, golf, fishing, hunting,” Richards said.

“One thing I’ve learned: He’s got his players back no matter what,” he added. “He’s always behind us and that’s great to know.”
That notion will soon be put to the test. Business might trump personal feelings when it comes time to make a decision on the centre’s future.

Sather has seen just about everything after a lifetime spent in the game, but you can’t imagine he’d feel too good about sending Richards packing a week or two after a run to the Stanley Cup Final. However, if he was feeling any heat at the outset of the series, you would never know it.

In fact, the GM joked that his toughest task on Tuesday was picking a golf course to play in the afternoon and deciding what television show to watch at night.

“Is Game of Thrones on?” he said.

Back in the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in 24 years, the sly fox is clearly enjoying himself. As he should.

“It takes time to get in this position,” Sather said. “Anyone that’s been in the hockey business knows what it can be like, and it’s complicated.”

Just wait until the Stanley Cup Final ends.

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