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We’ve received some feedback over the past few weeks that readers are looking for a more objective viewpoint on hot-button Rangers issues. In our insatiable desire to please our readership, we’ve decided to start the Playing devil’s advocate series, looking at both sides of major debates and lending our own conclusion.
As the 2013-2014 season progresses, one topic that always remains at the forefront is the Brad Richards buyout decision. The Rangers are allowed one more compliance buyout in June of 2014, and the rumors are they will use it on Richards. The 33-year-old center signed a back-diving contract as a free agent prior to the 2011-2012 season. After a strong first season, Richards struggled mightily in the lockout-shortened 2013 season. He got off to a hot start this season (5-3-8 in the first 8 games), but has slowed a bit, putting up 2-10-12 in the other 20 games. Despite that, Richards is still leading the team in scoring, with 20 points in 28 games. Regardless of your opinion of Richards, he’s a critical Ranger this season. But is he worth the risk of keeping him around?
The case to keep him around:
Even though he is not the elite Brad Richards of old, Richards is still on pace for a little less than 60 points this season. Fifty-eight points during the 2011-2012 season would put Richards in the top-25 among centers, making him a bottom-third top line center. During the lockout shortened 2013 season, the one where Richards was a step behind, Richards was still #22 in points among centers. Derek Stepan has eclipsed Richards as the top center for this team, but Richards gave the Rangers a dangerous 1-2 punch at center. No matter what you think of his play without the puck, he still produces at a top line center clip.
Speaking of his play without the puck, Richards’ role on this team is no longer as a two-way center. Alain Vigneault has started Richards a whopping 70.9% in the offensive zone (via O/D St%, which is offensive zone starts divided by defensive zone starts, neutral zone starts are omitted). Richards’ role is that of an offensive player, he needs to score to be effective. That’s what he’s been doing, aside from a five game pointless stretch. Since he leads the team in scoring, and is still on a top-30 scoring pace for centers, he is doing his job there.
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The case to buy him out:
That contract is a disaster waiting to happen. Sure the cap hit may not be much as the cap goes up, but do the Rangers really want $6.67 million in cap space tied up to a guy that has already shown a decline in production? AV might be able to get an extra year or two by sheltering Richards with zone starts, but that contract runs for the next six seasons, at which point Richards will be 40 years old. If he’s already slowing down now, can you imagine what it would be like at 40?
Another contract issue: Cap recapture for early retirement. While Henrik Lundqvist’s contract does not qualify here, Richards’ contract does. If Richards retires early, then the Rangers are smacked with a $5.67 million cap penalty for each season left on his deal (assuming he retires after 2017). It saves them $1 million in cap space if Richards doesn’t retire, but that’s still $5.67 million in dead weight.
At $6.67 million, Richards’ cap hit is among the top-20 for all forwards in the league. Looking at those with expiring contracts, only a few will pass him on that list in the immediate future. Second line centers nowadays, those in the 40-50 point range, sign at around $4 million-$5 million. Cap space is an important commodity, and that extra $1.5 million goes a long way.
How much longer do we have until Richards’ play declines so much that he can no longer contribute offensively? Since he can’t really contribute defensively on a consistent basis anymore, scoring is the only thing he has left, and that’s already on the decline. Even if AV gets another two or three useful years out of Richards, there’s still another three years of mediocrity at best.
The case to trade him:
Richards has a no-movement clause, so he would need to approve any trade. While it does happen, let’s assume he doesn’t approve anything, since those are in there for a reason.
If the Rangers trade him, they still need to take on the cap recapture penalty if he retires early. Capgeek has a recapture calculator, so you can play with the numbers there.
Before this season began, I thought it was the right move to keep Richards for one more season. He’s proving some doubters wrong, as his offensive play has certainly improved with AV. However, it is clear he cannot be counted on for any defensive responsibilities. It is also clear that he is on the decline offensively. For a player that is no longer relied upon to contribute defensively, offensive decline is a career killer.
The team made the right move keeping him around for this season, with no other viable options. There are other options available internally for next season, and the risk of decline and keeping that contract are too great. I think a buyout is inevitable, barring injury.