It’s no secret. I was very vocal about using our last compliance buyout on Brad Richards this summer. Rather than run the risk of injury and getting stuck with his cap hit —for what will seem like perpetuity if he does get injured— the Rangers decided to give him one last shot at glory.
While I’m disappointed in the decision, I assure you I won’t put a target on his back this year just because the org disagreed with me. After all, my name isn’t Scotty. What’s done is done, and now the org needs to shift gears and figure out what exactly is the best way to get the most of Richards.
Whether or not you think he will rebound this year likely depends on several variables. A) Are you an optimistic person? B) Do you trust or are you very comfortable with advanced stats? C) Do you believe Alain Vigneault and his systems will be an antidote.
Here’s what we’re up against. Though Richards scored 11 goals and had 23 assists (19g-41a-60pts over 82 games), the underlying trends don’t look great. He scored half of his goals and almost a third of his points in the final six games of the regular season when the Rangers were beating up on non-playoff teams. In 10 playoff games, he finished with just 1 point.
Even more worrisome is the season-to season trend. Richie scored 91 points in 2010, 77 points in 2011, 66 points in 2012 and “60 points” last year while maintaining a total icetime per game in the high teens. Let’s not sugarcoat this. 2013 was more than an off-year.
So where do we go from here?
Torts is out, Alain is in, and most of our prospects expected to replace Richards down the road will likely need seasoning in the AHL. If the Rangers are going to make a deep playoff push, having Richards playing consistent hockey will only help our cause.
Richards isn’t getting any younger and Torts’ smash-mouth style of hockey with aggressive forechecking and playing below the dots is more suited for stronger, tougher, faster players. At this point of his career, Richie certainly wouldn’t be described as any of those traits. A trap or hybrid trap-type system revolving around a 1-2-2 or 1-4 forecheck might be better suited for where Brad is at in his career.
A lot of the offense Richards has provided the last year or two generally comes from neutral zone transition rushes, rather than takeaways or from hits behind the goal line. The 1-2-2 would put him in better position to capitalize off of those neutral zone turnovers. The trap also doesn’t require as much skating and has been credited with prolonging careers since it is less taxing and more of an energy conservation tactic.
Of course, I’m not sure if the trap really suits the rest of this roster, so we’ll see what AV has in store.
Richie and Gabby never really meshed the way we all had hoped and I’d put Stepan or Brass with Nash before Richie. This has to make you wonder who his line-mates will be come October. Richie’s best performances in recent years were playing pivot between Loui Eriksson and James Neal. While we don’t have that caliber of talent, perhaps pairing him with up-and-coming skill forwards and powerforwards would re-energize him. A line of Kreider – Richie – Miller against weaker competition could be a solid third unit. Maybe you swap Miller with Pouliot if JT isn’t ready.
Another idea I’ve been playing around with is moving Richards to the wing if Lindberg or Miller are ready for full-time duty. Centers really have to be strong in all three zones and willing to come down low in the DZ to help the defense with breakouts and puck support. Given our propensity to get pinned in our zone, having Richards down low won’t exactly kick-start his offense.
If you move him to wing, he’ll be stationed higher in the zone which will give him more opportunities on the rush, plus you’ll be lightening up his defensive responsibilities. Again, like the trap, the idea is to save energy and craft a strategy around his slowing foot speed. It’s a ballsy move, but you already know how I feel about mice.
More Offensive Zone Starts:
This is one strategy I’ve seen tossed around a little bit, but I can’t say I agree that giving Richards more draws in the offensive zone is going to be the cure all. Last season he started 63.4% of his shifts (after a whistle) in the offensive zone. That put him just 5% points away from the league leader among forwards who played at least 20 games (Carcillo with 68%).
I don’t think a few extra face-offs in the offensive zone is going to be the difference maker, especially since he struggled on offensive zone face-offs, which kind of defeats the whole purpose of giving guys those opportunities. After all, at some point people have to recognize not every offensive player is going to get high OZone start percentages under AV. More than one line has to be responsible for defensive zone draws.
Of course the real question is, if AV can’t get any more out of Richards than Torts did, then what happens? Do you bench him? Do you bury him on the fourth line? How many games do you give him? Food for thought.