A team without a captain? Think again

NEW YORK -- People were watching to see what would happen when the New York Rangers were summoned onto the ice to accept the Prince of Wales Trophy after knocking off the Montreal Canadiens in the Eastern Conference finals Thursday.

How would they handle it in the absence of a captain? Who would accept the trophy? Or would they honor hockey superstition and decline to touch it at all?

The thing is, the Rangers do have a captain.

His name is Brad Richards.

The 34-year-old veteran might wear an “A” for the Blueshirts, but he is no longer in a secondary leadership role. He is, without question, THE guy. And for the record, it was Richards who instructed the Rangers not to touch the trophy. They didn't.

The former Conn Smythe Trophy winner emerged as such after the departure of former captain Ryan Callahan, who was swapped in a stunning blockbuster trade for Tampa Bay Lightning veteran forward (and Richards’ longtime friend) Martin St. Louis at the trade deadline. There was no formal passing of the torch. The Rangers never anointed him officially. But they never had to. The role fit him naturally, and that’s precisely why it worked.

“After Cally left, he really stepped up,” gritty winger Daniel Carcillo told ESPNNewYork.com. “He really took the reins and he’s been pulling them the hardest.”

Though Callahan was always a beloved presence on the ice for the Rangers, setting the tone with his spark-plug play and abundant reserve of heart, he never quite took to the spokesperson role that the captaincy entailed. He was polite in addressing the media, always accountable, too, whether things were going good or bad. But there also appeared to be an uneasiness with the constant spotlight, a distaste, perhaps, for all the attention.

By contrast, Richards always seemed comfortable acting as the elder statesman of the room. Whether that came by way of his experience (the 12-year veteran is one of three Rangers who has won a Stanley Cup) or simply by disposition (the cerebral and thoughtful Richards has never had a problem speaking his mind) his leadership has been nothing short of critical to the Rangers' current success.

When invoking names like Mark Messier and Brendan Shanahan, one must also now mention Brad Richards, because under his stewardship, the Rangers are back in the Stanley Cup finals for the first time since their last championship run in 1994.

Richards was savvy enough to recognize the void when Callahan left back in March. Whereas Callahan bounced ideas off him before, Richards was always respectful in deferring to Callahan’s status as the team’s official captain. He has since become emboldened to take on the heavy lifting that comes with leading a team through an emotional playoff run. With the help of fellow alternates Dan Girardi and Marc Staal, he has come to the forefront.

“It’s definitely a different feeling and it’s hard to explain, but when it’s a new situation, you recognize what’s needed and you make sure you take care of what’s needed now,” Richards told ESPNNewYork.com. “Dan and Marc have done a great job, too. They’re obviously younger and that’s just the natural reason why I did a little more on my part. That’s kind of my job to do that.”

That means posting up at his dressing room stall every day, win or loss, game day or not, and sustaining waves of questions from the throngs of media that have descended upon the team. He answers everything, from the banal to the personally probing, all with aplomb. He will be critical when need be, chastising the team for a squandered opportunity, and almost paternal and protective at times, too (fitting indeed, as he and his fiancée are expecting their first child this fall).

He made a point to invite teammates, especially the young players without families, to his Southampton home this past weekend when the team had a pair of days off following its series-ending victory against Montreal. When others might have seen the respite as a welcome opportunity to get away and unwind, he wanted those around him to feel included, looked after.

“He thinks of others before himself,” 23-year-old winger Chris Kreider said.

Asked if there was any low point -- and Kreider has certainly had a few, including both injuries and demotions over the past two years -- that Richards helped him through, he replied, emphatically: “Every low point. Every one.”

It might just be that Richards’ leadership is so well received and appreciated because of the dramatic arc his career has taken since he landed in New York after signing a nine-year, $60 million deal as a free agent back in July 2011. After a promising first year on Broadway, he suffered both devastation and indignity in a lockout-shortened 2013 season, one that ended with him watching the Rangers’ final two playoff games from the press box as a healthy scratch. Speculation about a potential buyout raged on throughout the summer.

Richards, as he vowed he would when he lamented his own personal disappointment after a season in shambles on breakup day last May, returned with a vengeance. He trained like a maniac with Connecticut-based Ben Prentiss, and he came back in peak physical form, eager to embrace new coach Alain Vigneault’s message of a “clean slate.” No one grabbed onto the motto with more gusto than the Prince Edward Island native, who bounced back with a 20-goal, 51-point regular season and has posted five goals and 11 points in the playoffs.

That has not been lost on his teammates. There have been a lot of inspiring stories this season from within that Rangers dressing room. Richards is one of them.

“When things go bad, or sour, you see someone’s true character,” Derek Dorsett told ESPNNewYork.com. “He handled himself very well.”

Now comes the truly puzzling part of this particular tale: what lies ahead in Richards’ future.

As essential as he has been to the Rangers’ postseason run, and make no mistake, they would not be where they are without him, the buyout talk will persist. Regardless of whether the Rangers upset the Los Angeles Kings and bring home the club’s first Cup since 1994, there are other factors at play.

By virtue of a provision in the NHL’s collective bargaining agreement, the cap recapture rule, the Rangers would face whopping financial penalties should Richards retire before the expiration of his contract.

From a purely business standpoint, the Rangers may not be able to afford not to buy him out. And know this: Richards stands to gain financially in this event, as he would certainly have a number of suitors willing to award him a multiyear deal on top of what he is already entitled to collect in the wake of a compliance buyout.

But this is not what he wants. And after this season, it can’t be what the Rangers want, either.

Goaltender Henrik Lundqvist has been the backbone of the franchise for years, backstopping the team with his steady play, but Richards has held the team together. He has kept the room intact even when so many outside factors -- debilitating defeats, startling trades, heartbreaking tragedies -- have threatened to rip it apart.

Richards knows those will be the questions facing him when the music stops this spring. He doesn’t want to think of it now. In fact, he promised himself he wouldn’t.

“I kind of made a pact to myself. I didn’t know if it was going to come up, but it’s not fair to my teammates, the organization. There are so many more important things in the next few weeks,” Richards told ESPNNewYork.com. “I won’t talk about it now. It’s not the time."

There are more important things at stake. He’s the captain, and he has his team to worry about.