Not A "Normal" Year For Richards
It was Breakup Day, the end of another New York Rangers hockey season which this time lasted into the second round of the playoffs, so you didn't expect to see many happy, smiling faces when the players met with reporters following their exit meetings with the coaching staff.
But to see Brad Richards, and to listen to his anguished words, was the most painful part of the day.
The veteran center, and team alternate captain, was a healthy scratch in the Rangers final two games, a Game Four overtime win over the Bruins in the semifinals, and the Game Five defeat which ended their season on Saturday night. Brought in two summers ago as a marquee free agent who would "accelerate"---in head coach John Tortorella's words---the Rangers plan of becoming a legitimate Stanley Cup contender, Richards recorded one point in ten playoff games with diminishing ice time until Tortorella did what he felt was most right for the team, and that was to scratch the 2004 Conny Smythe Trophy winner.
"It was not a fun time," Richards answered when asked about not playing the last two games of the Bruins series. "There is really no other way to put it. It was tough, but life goes on and I've got to regroup and figure some things out, and start over."
Richards notched 11 goals and 34 points in 46 regular season games this year, though he admitted on Monday "I didn't feel normal all season." The lockout affected his preparation, and Richards struggled to find his game throughout the shortened season, finally catching fire at the end when he closed with 11 points in his final six games. But in the playoffs---where Richards is known to shine, and led the Rangers with 15 points while advancing to the conference finals last spring---Richards started with a 20-minute effort as a top-six forward in the opening round vs. Washington, and ended up as a fourth-line center playing eight minutes, before being scratched two straight. Along the way he managed to score one goal, as he fought the puck and himself in a can't win battle.
"When it happens, you're never really understanding," explained Richards of being scratched. "But the game before I probably played 40 seconds in the third period, so it's not like I went from 20 minutes to nothing. It was a tough time, frustrating. I wanted to be out there trying to help, but those are not my decisions."
The man who made the decision, Tortorella, has explained that he believed three other centermen---Derek Stepan, Derick Brassard, and Brian Boyle---were playing better than Richards, and that Richards did not fit on the grinding type of fourth line Tortorella needed to deploy against Boston. Hence scratching the player he won a Stanley Cup with down in Tampa nine years ago, and a player still highly respected in the Rangers dressing room.
"It's about the team, and producing for the team, and it was a struggle for Brad," explained Tortorella on Monday. "It hurt Brad, and it hurt the team. And it's not all on Brad. Brad knows how I feel about him. He needs to know this is a bit of a wake up call. But I do believe he will turn himself around. I do think he will rebound."
As for Richards' imemdiate future, Tortorella did admit that topic will be discussed at the team's organizational meetings in late June.
"I didn't play the last two games of the season so obviously I have to do something to get back so that there is no regret or disappointment," said Richards. "I signed here to be a Ranger a lot longer than a year and a half, and I still hope to do that, but I still have to take care of how I play. And that's all on me."
On a downer of a day, the end of a season which began with such high expectations, seeing a downcast Brad Richards answer these tough questions about his present and future was the most gut-wrenching part of the day on Monday.
But Richards did leave the locker room on somewhat of an up note, saying that he was going to begin training in a week to ten days so that there would not be a repeat of this season in 2013-14.