‘Rangers Inside And Out’
By Sean Hartnett
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The 2012-13 NHL season was a hellish year for Rangers alternate captain Brad Richards. Richards missed the starting gun by not playing in Europe during the lockout. Opposing players gained an edge over the veteran Richards, who instead immersed himself in collective-bargaining sessions with the players’ union.
When the 48-game regular season got under way in January, Richards was ushered straight into the breakneck speed of the NHL without the benefit of a full training camp. His legs were a step slower than everyone else, and Richards appeared out of sync with the rest of his teammates.
Richards was struggling to make the simplest of passes, he frequently coughed up the puck and the confidence was sapped from his game. It was painful to watch a respected player who had twice been a 91-assist man regress into a shadow of himself. Richards’ game lacked any kind of punch. His name was turned into clever headline puns like “Bad Richards” and “Brad News.”
Former Rangers head coach John Tortorella had continued to supply Richards with consistent overall minutes and refused to remove the struggling 33-year-old from the power play until the final three games of the Rangers’ disappointing playoff run. Roughly two weeks after celebrating his 33rd birthday, Richards had become a playoff passenger. His total time on ice was slashed to just over eight minutes and he was relegated to the Rangers’ fourth line in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Tortorella had finally seen enough and pulled the plug on Richards, banishing him to the press box as a healthy scratch in Game 4 at Madison Square Garden. Afterward, Tortorella publicly defended Richards during his postgame press conference at Madison Square Garden, before urging the media to kiss his posterior if they felt like writing anything different than a warm relationship between Torts and Richards. Privately, their once-close relationship had become strained, as Tortorella had been humiliating Richards by repeatedly questioning his abilities in front of teammates.
Richards again could only watch from the press box after the Rangers were eliminated in Game 5 at TD Garden. The prevailing thought was that Tortorella would remain head coach of the Rangers in 2013-14 and Richards would be bought out after their relationship had deteriorated.
Instead the opposite happened. Tortorella was relieved of his duties as head coach of the Rangers on May 29. General manager Glen Sather wasn’t willing to bite the bullet and give up on one of his most noteworthy investments in Richards, and new head coach Alain Vigneault was eager to repair Richards’ confidence and overall game.
“Broadway Brad” Richards had avoided being branded as “Buyout Brad.”
VIGNEAULT HAS REBUILT RICHARDS’ CONFIDENCE
When Torts left the building, in came Vigneault with a fresh approach. The new head coach of the Rangers offered every player a clean slate during training camp. All of the acrimony that happened under Tortorella, was quickly thrown out the window.
Richards relished the positivity of Vigneault. Tortorella had constantly picked at the faults of players, yelling ceaselessly into their ears. Vigneault brought a refreshing calmness to training camp at Madison Square Garden Training Center in Tarrytown. His approach was instead to get the most out of his players by offering positive feedback instead of piling on.
During training camp, Richards explained how Vigneault’s method excited him.
“In the end, it’s just myself getting prepared,” Richards said. “I think this staff, talking to Alain, is very positive. He uses the ‘clean slate’ thing, but he uses it especially with me — that all’s forgotten. I’m excited to get back to work, and I think he’s excited to help me get back on track. In the end, it’s really all up to me.”
RICHARDS TRANSFORMS BACK TO OLD SELF IN WIN OVER KINGS
The Rangers defeated the Los Angeles Kings, 3-1, on Monday night at Staples Center. Richards was front and center in Vigneault’s first victory as head coach of the Blueshirts as he scored two of three Rangers goals — the other being an unusual misadventure by Kings netminder Jonathan Quick, who could not control a long clearance off the center ice boards that was credited to defenseman Ryan McDonagh.
Richards played like a man possessed in comparison to last season’s unassured nature. He and linemates Derek Stepan and Rick Nash ceaselessly forechecked with gusto, pursuing the puck strongly and supporting one another.
Many questioned whether Richards would regain that step he lost during the 2012-13 season. On Monday night in Los Angeles, Richards’ legs were quick and he clung close to opponents on the forecheck, forcing them into turnovers.
Richards also went 6-for-8 from the faceoff dot after being shifted from left wing to center.
Overall, Richards has taken a great leap forward in the first two games. The arrow is pointing up for Richards. This isn’t the guy who described himself as “lost” last season. His confidence is back, thanks to Vigneault’s clean slate.
Richards and the Rangers will be looking to earn back-to-back wins over difficult Western Conference foes when they take on the San Jose Sharks on Tuesday night at 10:30 p.m. at SAP Center.
Follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey.
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