NEW YORK -- New York Rangers coach John Tortorella made a bold move Thursday morning, deciding to scratch veteran center and alternate captain Brad Richards as his team faced elimination against the Boston Bruins in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
After the Rangers' 4-3 overtime win, Tortorella passionately defended both the player and the decision to sit him in what was the team's biggest game of the season.
The fiery coach pointed to Richards' struggles and explained that playing him in a fourth-line role wasn't helping anyone.
"This is a Conn Smythe winner, a guy I've grown up with, a guy that I love as a person and as a player, but I have to make that decision ... so kiss my a-- if you wanna write something different," Tortorella said. "It's not about blaming that guy, and I don't want anyone to pile on. This is my decision, and I make it for the hockey club."
The 33-year-old Richards, who signed a nine-year, $60 million deal with the Rangers in July 2011, and Tortorella won a Stanley Cup together in 2004 while with the Tampa Bay Lightning. In that run to the Cup, Richards won the Conn Smythe as MVP in the postseason.
The embattled forward's game has steadily deteriorated this season, and as a result, Richards has endured demotions and diminished ice time. Most recently, he was relegated to the fourth line with wingers Chris Kreider and Arron Asham. In Game 3 against Boston, Richards received just 8 minutes, 10 seconds of ice time, 5:58 of which came at even strength.
"It's not good for him. It doesn't work playing Brad Richards that way," Tortorella said. "But I also feel some other guys have played better. So that's where he is right now in our lineup."
Richards said Tortorella called him to tell him the news Thursday morning.
"I don't know if 'surprised' is the right word, just disappointed," Richards said with an air of dejection Thursday morning.
The move undoubtedly will raise questions about Richards' future with the team.
The seven years remaining on his deal, with an annual cap hit of $6.66 million, make him a prime candidate for a compliance buyout this summer or next.
Per rules of hockey's new collective bargaining agreement, each team is allotted two buyouts over the next two summers. The Rangers have utilized an accelerated compliance buyout for Wade Redden, now with the Bruins, but that doesn't count against their remaining two.
But the main reason the Rangers will consider a compliance buyout has less to do with performance than one might think. In fact, they'd have to entertain the possibility even if Richards was playing well if it appeared he retired before the expiration of his contract.
The Cap Advantage Recapture Rule in the new CBA.
That rule penalizes a team with a player on a deal seven years or more in the event of early retirement for the "cap advantage" the team received while the player's salary was more than his cap hit.
In Richards' case, the Rangers would be penalized $5.6 million if he retired during the offseason in 2017, $8.5 million in '18 and a whopping $17 million in '19.
The Rangers would not be subject to these penalties if they exercise a buyout this summer or next. If they wait until next summer to buy out Richards, they run the risk of him sustaining an injury while playing during the 2013-14 season. Teams are not allowed to buy out an injured player.
If Richards is bought out this summer, he might have played his last game on Broadway.
"Nothing's over," he said, adding that his plans are to "work harder and try my best to never let it happen again."
Thursday's decision was the low point of what has been a difficult season for Richards, who was the premier free agent just two summers ago.
"It's all tough," Richards said.
Tortorella recognized the need to address the decision and devoted almost two minutes of his postgame news conference to it "out of respect to Brad."
"Don't put words in my mouth," he said. "It's not blaming Brad Richards. I've already heard enough of that crap already as far as this is concerned. He's a hell of a hockey player having a hell of a time. So, I need to make decisions for what I feel is right for the team to win tonight's game. And that's why I make that decision."