Brad Richards the Rangers' unappreciated man

The Rangers’ Brad Richards, left, has five goals and six assists in this year’s playoffs

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The Rangers’ Brad Richards, left, has five goals and six assists in this year’s playoffs

NEW YORK

At the grand entrance of Madison Square Garden, near the corner of Seventh Avenue and West 33rd Street in midtown Manhattan, a massive collage of great Rangers moments and players covers the wall and welcomes fans to "Ranger Town."

Right next to slightly-larger-than-life-sized photos of superstar goalie Henrik Lundqvist and defenseman Ryan McDonagh stands yet another, this one of Marty St. Louis. Little girls and grown men alike, all jacked up for tonight's Game 3 of the Stanley Cup final between the Rangers and Kings, take turns having their photos taken with the likeness of the former Lightning star.

St. Louis has been in New York only a couple of months, but because of his inspirational efforts following the death of his mother last month, he has already become somewhat of a legend in a city that often doesn't cozy up to outsiders.

What's interesting is there is not a portrait of another former Lightning star at the Garden. That would be Brad Richards. It's interesting, but come to think of it, not really that surprising. That's the kind of player Richards is. He is one of those guys you don't really think about until he's not there.

Just ask the Lightning.

While fans in Tampa Bay continue to curse the parting with St. Louis to the Rangers and cry over the departure of Vinny Lecavalier to the Flyers, it's the loss of Richards that might haunt the Lightning franchise more than any other.

It was exactly 10 years ago today — June 9, 2004 — when 20,000 Lightning fans lined the streets of Tampa to celebrate Tampa Bay winning the Stanley Cup.

St. Louis played a critical role in that Cup, of course. So did Lecavalier and goalie Nikolai Khabibulin. You can't forget Game 7 star Ruslan Fedotenko. And if there's one memory that stands out, it's 40-year-old captain Dave Andreychuk finally getting to lift the best trophy in all of sports after logging 22 seasons in the NHL.

But no player had more fingerprints on the Lightning's success that spring than Richards. You almost forget that, don't you?

It was Richards who was the playoff MVP. It was Richards who led the playoffs in scoring. It was Richards who tied for the team lead in goals that playoff season.

It was Richards who consistently guided the Lightning off the ice and on the score sheet through the two greatest months in franchise history.

A lockout wiped out the next season and kept the Lightning from immediately defending its championship. Before the Lightning and the league played again, Khabibulin left as a free agent. Eventually, the Lightning was in a jam. It didn't have a reliable goalie, and the NHL's new salary cap made it impossible for the Lightning to keep all three of its stars: St. Louis, Lecavalier and Richards.

So, it swallowed hard and decided to make Richards the odd man out. Richards was shipped to Dallas for Mike Smith, who was expected to be the next franchise goalie.

Plagued by injuries and inconsistency, Smith never really panned out, and the Lightning's goal crease became a revolving door, with names such as Olaf Kolzig, Antero Niittymaki, Dan Ellis, Dwayne Roloson, Mathieu Garon and Anders Lindback passing through. Other than Roloson's run in the second half of 2010-11, the Lightning really didn't hit on a goalie until Ben Bishop this season.

And it really has never replaced Richards, who left the Stars and signed a nine-year, $60 million free agent contract with the Rangers in the summer of 2011. The deal allowed Richards to reunite with old Lightning coach John Tortorella, but that took a strange turn.

In last season's playoffs, Richards was practically shunned by Tortorella, and rumors were rampant the Rangers were going to buy out Richards' contract in the summer. In fact, it is believed Richards already was looking into a possible return to Tampa Bay.

But Tortorella was fired, and the Rangers realized before it was too late that a team is better off with Richards than without him. The 34-year-old rewarded the Rangers' confidence with a bounce-back regular season, scoring 20 goals with 31 assists. In the playoffs, he has five goals and six assists.

The Rangers certainly need their alternate captain after blowing two-goal leads in each of the first two games of the Cup final and losing both in overtime at Los Angeles to fall behind 2-0 in this best-of-seven series.

But get this: There are whispers again that the Rangers will consider buying out Richards' contract this summer, making him an unrestricted free agent. Richards says the time isn't right to talk about that now, but you would have to believe that if he was a free agent, he would be a perfect fit in Tampa Bay, especially if the Lightning does not re-sign Ryan Callahan.

Richards can still play, and his character and leadership are unquestioned.

Maybe the Rangers will let Richards go and realize as he plays for another team just how valuable he is. Maybe that team will be the Lightning.

He certainly would be a welcome addition. Bet the Lightning would even put his picture up on the side of the arena.

Brad Richards the Rangers' unappreciated man 06/08/14 [Last modified: Sunday, June 8, 2014 10:43pm]

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