The Rangers haven’t been able to replace Brad Richards

Richards finished third on the team with 51 points last year

We’ve spent a lot of time bemoaning the loss of Anton Stralman, whose departure has coincided with a drastic drop in possession numbers. We’ve also talked about the impact losing Brian Boyle has had on the penalty kill and on faceoffs. Heck, we’ve even reminisced about Raphael Diaz.

But one key veteran has been quickly forgotten since his forced exit just days after the Stanley Cup Final.

The buyout of Brad Richards was a foregone and necessary conclusion for the Blueshirts, who were in desperate need of cap space and had one final chance to shed the remainder of his albatross contract without being penalized.

Richards’ skills are most definitely in decline and this is not an argument that he should have been kept, but there is a gaping hole in the middle where Richards was once a mainstay.

Say what you want about Richards’ game, but his 51 points ranked third on the team last year. After a slow start, Richards has posted 11 points in 18 games this season, nearly the same scoring rate as last season. Richards’ replacement, Kevin Hayes, has steadily improved and has a very bright future, but he’s posted just five points this year. Hayes will surely pick up the pace, but there’s no way he’ll come close to matching Richards’ production.

As Dave likes to say, the concept of top-six forwards is very outdated. Teams now carry three scoring lines and a checking trio. Last year, the third line in name of Benoit Pouliot, Derrick Brassard and Mats Zuccarello often outplayed and outproduced the top two lines. This season, Hayes, Carl Hagelin and Anthony Duclair/Lee Stempniak haven’t been able to do the same.

Hayes’ production might be fine for a No. 3 center behind consistent juggernauts like Ryan Getzlaf and Ryan Kesler, but it’s problematic behind a still recovering Derek Stepan and Brassard.

Unlike the Stralman mistake, there’s not much Glen Sather could have done to prevent this. Richards had to go, and the only viable replacement on the free agent market, Mikhail Grabovski, proved to be far too costly, especially in a package deal with Nikolai Kulemin. The trade market was never a realistic option, as any move for a center would have gutted the lineup and farm system.

The hope was that J.T. Miller would put up decent offensive numbers, but that appears to have been wishful thinking. For now, Hayes’ growing pains are just something the Rangers will have to live with.