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New York Rangers coach John Tortorella, right, argues a penalty call as Brad Richards looks on late in the third period of the NHL Winter Classic hockey game against the Philadelphia Flyers, Monday, Jan. 2, 2012, in Philadelphia. (Associated Press)

New York Rangers coach John Tortorella, right, argues a penalty call as Brad Richards looks on late in the third period of the NHL Winter Classic hockey game against the Philadelphia Flyers, Monday, Jan. 2, 2012, in Philadelphia.

(Associated Press)

Rangers make Richards a healthy scratch for elimination game Add to ...

Less than two years ago, he was the most coveted free agent, feted by the New York Rangers, Los Angeles Kings, Toronto Maple Leafs and Calgary Flames right up until the final day.

In the end, Brad Richards signed a behemoth nine-year, $60-million contract with the Rangers.

On Thursday, with New York facing elimination and down 3-0 in their series to the Boston Bruins, he will be a healthy scratch.

This has been coming for a little while.

After getting more than 20 minutes a game in the Rangers first two playoff games this season, his ice time has been dwindling significantly, to the point that he was on the ice less than 10 minutes in Game 6 of Round 1 and little more than eight minutes in Tuesday’s 2-1 loss to the Bruins.

Richards had an up and down regular season, with only 34 points in 46 games, but nothing like his one point in 10 game drought so far in these playoffs.

And the talk of him being a compliance buyout candidate is growing by the day, adding yet another name to the list of overpriced free agents gone wrong in New York (Bobby Holik, Wade Redden, Scott Gomez, etc.).

There is $36-million left on Richards’s deal after this season and a buyout would cost the Rangers two-thirds (or $24-million) spread out over the next 14 years.

The $1.7-million a season would hardly put them out, in other words, if that’s the route they go.

Richards still has some value to a team, but with the cap coming down for the first time and by about $6-million, teams are going to be squeezed and his $6.67-million hit isn’t really fitting for what he provides.

Including Richards, the Rangers have committed more than $51-million to next year’s cap and desperately need to upgrade their offence after a trying year in that department.

More than anything, what this should stand as is a cautionary tale.

Richards, at 33, has slowed down considerably, and that’s far from unusual. Only 13 players aged 33 or older managed 30 points this season and all but a select few freaks like Jaromir Jagr, Marty St. Louis and Patrik Elias did so beyond 35.

Committing huge dollars on a long-term deal to a 31-year-old forward, as plenty of teams were lining up to do on July 1, 2011, doesn’t come with many guarantees and, statistically speaking, often won’t pay off.

Players peak as scorers earlier than we think.

Playing in the NHL is hard on the body, and these days, with the league focused more than ever on speed, it’s generally the 29-and-under crowd producing points around the league. (Only six of the top 30 scorers this season were 30+.)

And you don’t find those types in free agency all that often.

Follow on Twitter: @mirtle

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