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Rangers improved with Richards, but how much?

Saturday, 07.02.2011 / 12:32 PM / NHL Free Agency 2011

By Dave Lozo - NHL.com Staff Writer

The Rangers had to wait a day to land this summer's biggest free agent, but it was likely worth the wait.

Center Brad Richards, a one-time Stanley Cup champion and Conn Smythe winner with 716 points in 772 career games, agreed to a multi-year, $60 million contract Saturday morning with the Rangers. Richards, 31, spent Friday listening to offers from the Toronto Maple Leafs, Calgary Flames and Los Angeles Kings, but he decided to sign a deal with the Rangers that will take him to the age of 40.

Richards and the Rangers seemed like a perfect match going all the way back to the trade deadline. The Rangers needed a No. 1 center who could run their first-unit power play, but choose not to acquire the 31-year-old from the Dallas Stars, instead adding defenseman Bryan McCabe from the Florida Panthers.

Richards said last week he wanted to play in a hockey market with a team that can contend for the Stanley Cup. Madison Square Garden is routinely sold out, and while the Yankees, Mets, Knicks, Jets and Giants might grab the back page of the tabloids more often, there's no doubting New York has some of the most passionate and loyal fans in hockey.

But are the Rangers a Stanley Cup contender? They are coming off a first-round loss to the Washington Capitals and a season where the Rangers finished 18th in the League in points with 93 points. There's no doubting the Rangers have a strong, young core with a lot of promise and the addition of Richards makes them better, but whether this move makes them contenders in the East remains to be seen.

It wasn't so much scoring that was a problem for the Rangers last season; instead, it was finding consistent scoring. There were times when the Rangers would explode for five, six or seven goals in a game. But more often than not, they struggled to score three goals in a game, putting a lot of pressure on Henrik Lundqvist to be perfect.

The signing of Richards gives the Rangers a total of 14 forwards with NHL contracts, assuming RFAs Brandon Dubinsky, Ryan Callahan and Brian Boyle are re-signed. Of those 14 forwards, six can play center. Here's what the forward lines could look like when the Rangers open the season in Stockholm:

Left Wing Center Right Wing
Wojtek Wolski (12 G, 23 A) Brad Richards (28 G, 49 A) Marian Gaborik (22 G, 26 A)
Brandon Dubinsky (24 G, 30 A) Artem Anisimov (18 G, 26 A) Ryan Callahan (23 G, 25 A)
Ruslan Fedotenko (10 G, 15 A) Erik Christensen (11 G, 16 A) Derek Stepan (21 G, 24 A)
Avery (3 G, 21 A)/Rupp (9G, 8A) Brian Boyle (21 G, 14 A) Brandon Prust (13 G, 16 A)

Ruslan Fedotenko had just 10 goals last season and 11 the previous year, but he has experience with Richards from their time together in Tampa. Fedotenko's best season came in 2005-06 when he scored 26 goals for the Lightning. They didn't see a lot of time on a line together, but they at least have some familiarity with each other on the power play.

It seemed like a certainty that the Rangers were going to buy out the final year of Wojtek Wolski's contract, but with there being so few scorers in the free-agent market, he'll likely see time with Richards on the team's top line at 5-on-5. Perhaps playing with Richards will help the streaky scorer find some consistency.

Sather said no matter who plays on the left wing with Richards, it will be someone who is currently on the roster.

"I think that you can always fabricate a lineup," Sather said. "John is pointed in the direction that he thinks we have some people that can play with him. Time will tell us that story. But we're not going to pursue or add another high-priced left winger to go in here. We think that we have some people that are coming that are going to be able to fill that role."
 
The 14th forward in this scenario would be Mats Zuccarello, who seemed to run out of gas at the end of last season. That was to be expected, considering he's listed at 5-foot-7, 174 pounds and never played more than 55 games in a season during his time in the Swedish Elite League. Perhaps the Rangers will want to give him a full season in the AHL.

The Rangers have two other options for trimming down to 12 forwards:

1. Part ways with Erik Christensen: The Rangers have a glut of centers, so trading or waiving Christensen would allow Stepan to slide over to center and give Zuccarello a spot on the roster. Christensen has talent and is just 27 years old, but Tortorella has said on numerous occasions that he can be a frustrating player to coach.

2. Part ways with Sean Avery:  With the signing of Rupp, the Rangers have three players who are best suited to be fourth-line wings -- Avery, Rupp and Prust. Avery has shown at times he can be a terrific energy player on a third line, but he has a propensity for going over the line and taking foolish penalties. During the playoffs, Tortorella appeared to find a terrific fourth line with Avery-Boyle-Prust, so perhaps they will stick together and allow Rupp, who scored 22 goals in the past two seasons, to be the physical presence on the third line.

Once the Rangers figure out who will stay and who will leave, they should see a marked improvement in their power play with Richards. He has 69 power-play assists the past two seasons, finishing in a tie for 14th in the category last season and second two seasons ago. The Rangers have a finisher in Marian Gaborik, but they've been aching for a player like Richards, who has the vision and passing skills that were sorely lacking during power-play situations.

Richards is at his best when at that point or working along the half-wall. The Rangers lacked that all last season after it became evident that Michael Del Zotto wasn’t ready for the role. The team acquired veteran defenseman Bryan McCabe at the trade deadline to fill that role, but it didn't help a power play that finished 18th in the regular season and went just 1-for-20 in a five-game loss to the Washington Capitals in the first round.

With Chris Drury no longer a Ranger, it opens up the question of who will wear the 'C' for the Rangers. It likely won't be Brad Richards, who wore an 'A' with the Dallas Stars while Brenden Morrow served as the team's captain. The safe money is on the Rangers naming either Marc Staal or Ryan Callahan captain, but no matter who gets the 'C' for the Rangers, they have a solid leadership group in the locker room.

Coach John Tortorella said he hasn't given any thought to Richards wearing the 'C' as of today, and that it wouldn't be decided until players show up for training camp in September.

The Rangers should have enough money remaining after signing their RFAs to land a veteran defenseman, perhaps 34-year-old Brent Sopel, to help their relatively young corps of Staal, Dan Girardi, Ryan McDonagh and Michael Sauer. If 20-year-old prospect Tim Erixon earns a spot out of training camp, it will make it necessary for the Rangers to pick up someone with experience.

Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo

It means a lot to us, we're very excited. We're looking to continue to build on [our] top core talent of young players. It's just a great opportunity for us to really build high.

— Panthers vice president of hockey operations Travis Viola after Florida won the No. 1 pick in the NHL Draft Lottery