One look at how the high-priced free agent market has treated the New York Rangers in recent years is enough to suggest even cautious optimism may be a stretch.
Fans only have to look back a few days to the contract buyout of Chris Drury to be reminded how the Rangers’ recent big bets have busted. But despite the eye-popping price tag attached to marquee free agent signee Brad Richards -- $60 million -- expect the former Dallas Stars center to justify it from the start of the next season.
The ways Richards figures to impact the Rangers next season might be as numerous as the dollars he’ll collect during his nine-year deal.
Start with his character. The Rangers have put together a collection of players that share a dedication to do the dirty work required to win hockey games when you lack the high skill level enjoyed by some of the league’s top teams. The combination of a talent level like Richards’ with a willingness to buy into the work ethic demanded by Rangers head coach John Tortorella is rare indeed. But in Richards, the Rangers have found it.
A former Tampa scout noted that many doubted Richards’ talent level when he was playing junior hockey, with some believing it was his teammate -- Vincent Lecavalier -- that made him so exceptional. After Lecavalier moved on to the Tampa Bay Lightning, the scouts waited for Richards to fall off. Didn’t happen.
“All he did was win CHL player of the year and lead his team to the Memorial Cup,” the scout said. “He was MVP and put up bigger numbers without Lecavalier. When Richards turned pro he gradually improved his skating to become a top NHL player. Many would argue he made Vinny in Tampa.”
Ranger fans can only hope Richards will reignite the offense of their currently muted offensive maestro, Marian Gaborik. Gaborik is coming off an injury-plagued, underproductive season in which he managed 22 goals. Richards provides an immediate and immense upgrade over Gaborik’s usual playing partners from last season -- Erik Christensen and Vaclav Prospal. While both Christensen and Prospal are capable, and Gaborik did turn in one of his best seasons ever with Prospal as his pivot, Richards should provide a threat that will help create space for Gaborik to create scoring chances with is speed and playmaking ability.
Richards should also provide a little more consistency for Gaborik as well. Breaking down Gaborik’s shifts last season through ice-time tracking stats on DobberHockey.com, he may have spent the most time playing with Prospal and Christensen, but that “majority” still represented just 7.9 percent of his total ice time. Tortorella juggles his lines more than most NHL coaches, and in Gaborik’s case the Rangers’ bench boss frequently flipped him in an attempt to jumpstart his goal scoring. While last season’s Ranger team frequently stated in locker room comments that their linemates don’t matter much and they’re comfortable playing with everyone, that much volatility is unusual for elite scorers.
Take a look at the top snipers in terms of goals per game since the lockout and you’ll see that each of them had a significantly more stable linemate situation last season. Alex Ovechkin spent 30.42 percent of his ice time with Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Knuble. Ilya Kovalchuk skated with Travis Zajac and Nick Palmieri 24.93 percent of the time after he jumped over the boards. Sidney Crosby shared the rink with Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis 34.63 percent of the time he was out there. Even Dany Heatley’s 18.45 percent overlap with Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau more than doubles Gaborik’s mark.
Perhaps an end to that turbulence is what Gaborik needs to rekindle his game. After all, when he stuck with Prospal and Brandon Dubinsky for some more significant stretches in 2009-10 (16.49 percent of Gaborik’s ice time) he put together a sensational 42-goal season.
While the expectations will certainly be high for the Rangers’ top scoring line, expectations should be reduced for Ranger fan faves Dubinsky and Ryan Callahan.
With Gaborik struggling last season, the talented young forwards were often asked to fill the scoring void. They responded well with a combined 47 goals, but their responsibilities were hardly limited to the offensive zone. Dubinsky and Callahan often faced the best players the Rangers’ opponents had to offer, as measured by Gabriel Desjardins’ Quality of Competition metric. Both players ranked in the league’s top 25 in terms of the high quality of opponents they skated against.
In essence, the Blueshirts were asking their best blue-collar line to do it all. This season Richards should help shoulder the scoring load, allowing a potential line of restricted free agents Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov and Callahan to play more within their means -- which are still ample. Look around the league and it’s doubtful you’ll find a checking line with more skill.
The added depth should also allow Tortorella to pick and choose his spots for talented young center Derek Stepan and not burden him with too many important minutes ... or draws where his 38.5 faceoff percentage was a significant liability.
Finally, Richards will fill a huge void that was particularly apparent during the Rangers’ first-round ouster by the Caps -- a power play quarterback.
Last season with Dallas, Richards racked up 4.22 points per 60 minutes of 5-on-4 power play time, a mark that eclipses any Ranger who saw more than 2 minutes of 5-on-4 time per 60 minutes. And his 2.44 primary assists per 60 minutes of 5-on-4 time dwarf the next closest Blueshirt regular on the man-advantage (Gaborik at 1.66).
“He has excellent vision and puck skills and passes the puck as well as anyone in the league,” the scout said. “If paired with a shooter he will make someone improve their goal totals in my opinion.”
Last season the Rangers had several of the most important ingredients for a Stanley Cup contender: Elite goaltending, stingy defense and enough grit and desire to will themselves into the playoffs despite a boom-or-bust offense that went belly-up at year’s end. Now they’ve added a vital missing piece that figures to have a trickle-down effect that will improve their entire roster.
Even if Richards provides a fraction of what his acquisition suggests, he’ll be well worth the money the Rangers paid.