After a dreadful postseason that has stirred talk that the New York Rangers will cut him loose, Brad Richards, the NHL's second-highest-paid player at $12 million this season, says he is still hoping to return to Broadway in the fall.
"I signed here to be a Ranger a lot longer than a year and a half," he said. "I still hope to do that, but I gotta take care of how I can play and that's all on me."
The 33-year-old veteran, who has seven years remaining on a nine-year $60 million deal inked in July 2011, will be a prime candidate for a compliance buyout this summer. Richards said he has long been aware that scenario exists.
"That's been written since probably a week into the season," Richards said of the buyout talk. "That's the business side of it. I'm playing hockey no matter what."
Richards described his season as a "mess" and said it was tough to watch his team be eliminated from the postseason from the press box Saturday night.
He was scratched for both Games 4 and 5 of the team's semifinal set against the Boston Bruins, before which he was limited to only one point in 10 postseason games.
"It was not a fun time. There's no other way to really put it," Richards said. "It's tough, but life goes on and I've got to regroup and figure some things out and start over."
Richards admitted that the lockout-shortened season was a challenge, and that he was not prepared in the same way as he would have been had it started on time.
The former Conn Smythe Trophy winner said he wishes he could start his offseason "tomorrow" and will approach this summer with a renewed focus.
"I'll be honest, I didn't feel normal all season," Richards said. "There's a thousand things I could blame and put excuses on. I'm not going to do that."
After using an accelerated amnesty buyout on defenseman Wade Redden before the season began, the Rangers have one buyout remaining to use over the next two summers, per the new collective bargaining agreement.
And the reason the Rangers may be particularly inclined to use it on Richards has less to do with his poor play than one might think.
Because of the "cap advantage recapture rule," the Rangers would be facing hefty penalties in the event that Richards retires early.
The rule penalizes teams for any cap advantage gained from a player whose salary exceeds his cap hit in a given year. Richards was paid $24 million in salary over the first two years of the deal, which comes with an annual cap hit of $6.66 million. The last three years of his deal, he is due to make $1 million annually.
Under the parameters of the rule, the Rangers would be charged with a penalty of $5.66 million if Richards were to retire in the offseason of 2017, $8.5 million in 2018, and $17 million in 2019.
If the Rangers do not exercise the option to buy him out this summer, they run the risk that he could sustain an injury next season. A team cannot buy out an injured player. Rangers coach John Tortorella said Richards will "certainly" be a topic of discussion when the team convenes for its annual organizational meetings in California come June, but deferred to GM Glen Sather when asked if he expected Richards to be back next year.
"Oh, that's not a question I can answer. You need to ask my general manager that," Tortorella said. "I don't wanna speculate on contracts and all that." Sather was not available to the media on Monday.
Tortorella, who won a Stanley Cup Championship with Richards in 2004 with the Tampa Bay Lightning, said he had to put aside his relationship with the player and put the team's needs first when Richards' game went south.
Playing Richards on the fourth line with limited ice time, as he did before scratching him, wasn't working.
"I think he understands that stuff," Tortorella said. "It happened at a time where we didn't want to do it. It is a bit of wake-up call as far as where we are, what we expect and I believe he understands that. And I do believe he'll turn himself around."
So does Richards.