It has been some crazy ride for Brad Richards, from there to here.
He was a third-round pick from a tiny fishing village in Prince Edward Island who made good, winning a Stanley Cup (and playoff MVP) his fourth year in the league, with his cherubic face plastered all over Hockey Night in Canada as the loveable everyman with the Tampa Bay Lightning.
He never expected to be there. He never expected to be here, either.
Ten years later, Richards is obviously closer to the end of his career than the beginning as he leads the New York Rangers deep into the postseason as the old vet, his beard full and flashing that same, toothy smile.
At 34, he has at times generated more contract-buyout talks than anyone else on in New York, but this season has been a rebound and a renaissance, one that could extend his career who knows how long.
The Rangers don’t have a captain, but he’s been their leader, emotionally and otherwise, the mainstay even after the man who did wear the C, Ryan Callahan, was dealt away at the trade deadline to Tampa, of all places.
There have been times Richards has wondered, however. Is this it? Am I done?
“It gets to you,” Richards said of last season, a lost one under former Rangers coach John Tortorella, with whom he won a Cup in Tampa all those years ago. “I’m not going to deny that. It gets to you because you try to hold a certain standard for how you play over the years.
“When you can’t get to it and you’re struggling and mentally not handling it, the way it builds and mounts – you just go into a snowball, a spiral effect. And that’s tough.”
Richards produced at a better than 60-point pace in the lockout-shortened season a year ago, but New York had hoped for more. The Rangers gave him a $60-million (U.S.) deal as the league’s marquee free agent in 2011, wanting him to be the player who finally filled the team’s void as the top-line centre.
As it’s happened, that’s fallen to the younger Derek Stepan – who scored twice for the Rangers in Game 5 against the Montreal Canadiens on Tuesday – but Richards has settled in as a useful secondary option, playing the point on the top power-play unit and reunited with another former Lightning star, Marty St. Louis, on a dangerous line in different blue jerseys.
To hear his younger teammates tell it, Richards is also their role model, someone they look to when they’re down a goal and need a few words in the dressing room.
He’s seen a lot. And he’s not afraid to speak up.
“He was a leader for us last year; he’s a leader for us this year,” winger Chris Kreider said. “Maybe the points weren’t there at times, but that being said, we struggled [last year]. And sometimes the blame’s put on the leaders and that’s a tough role to play. But there’s so many things he does off the ice and how he carries himself that you want to try to emulate.”
“Since day one, Brad has been without a doubt one of my top go-to guys,” Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said. “He came here with a great attitude. He came here with great work ethic. I’ve really leaned on him and his experience.”
Entering Game 5, Richards was tied for second in playoff scoring on the Rangers, but the curious thing in New York these days is that the buyout debate continues.
No matter how well he plays, his behemoth contract still comes with some of the NHL’s ill-thought-out cap-recapture penalties if he retires early, putting pressure on the team to think ahead and go the compliance buyout route to wipe away his deal in the last summer when that option is available.
It’s an unfair situation to put the dozen or so stars who have those deals in, especially since they were signed in good faith. But at this point, Richards says he is in a good place with it all. The Rangers are winning. He’s playing well, and he feels like he is valued and has a home.
And the future, whatever it brings, will only be made better the deeper the Rangers go.
“Guys really are recognizing how teams come together as a group and how close we are to having a chance to play for the Cup,” Richards said. “I just feel it’s a different feel. It’s hard to explain.”
“I played on a team that won a Cup that was only in the league 10 years,” he continued. “We didn’t have any history to rely on. But it didn’t bother us. It was trying to win what’s in front of you. A great part of playing with an Original Six team is the history. But we’re trying to create our own history.”
Spoken like a vet.