Reunion with coach 'just a bonus' for Richards

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Yahoo Sports

Brad Richards(notes) wants to make one thing clear: He did not join the New York Rangers just because of head coach John Tortorella.

There was the lure of the big city. There was the appeal of the Eastern Conference. At home, Richards can experience life in Manhattan, wear an Original Six sweater and perform under the bright lights on Broadway. On the road, he can enjoy easier travel and play in traditional hockey markets more often.

There was the team, too. He can step into the No. 1 center spot, feed speedy sniper Marian Gaborik(notes) on his right wing and quarterback the power play. He can lead without carrying too much of the burden, fitting into a dressing room of young, character guys like captain Ryan Callahan(notes) and defenseman Marc Staal(notes). The Rangers are up and coming.

“If he wasn’t here, they still would have been a very big option,” said Richards, who reunited with his old Tampa Bay Lightning coach by signing a nine-year, $60-million contract on July 2. “It’s not just me and Torts. I don’t want to make it sound like that. That was just a bonus. That was just something that helped. Either way, it would have been a good fit.”

I’m sure Richards doesn’t want to come off as a Big Apple polisher, either. But he’s right. As anxious as I am to hype any New York free-agent signing, this one makes sense on so many levels. This wasn’t just a matter of throwing money at the best player available. It was throwing money at the best player for the Rangers.

Despite general manager Glen Sather’s playful boasting at the Winter Classic press conference in Philadelphia, the Rangers probably aren’t going to win the Stanley Cup this season. But they should be better with Richards, fighting for a good seed instead of merely a playoff spot in the East, a team with more skill to go with its grit and goaltending. From there, they can try to take the next step.

“It’s not a one-time thing with this team,” Richards said. “You can see it growing. So there’s going to be a window of years here we can keep growing and keep getting better. It would be great if it is this year, but it’s not just this year that I’m looking at. They’re building something here, and I’m still young enough to be a part of that.”

And, at 31, he’s old enough to make a difference.

The Tortorella connection might be more important for the Rangers than it is for Richards.

For Richards, Tortorella was one factor among many, and it was about familiarity. He played for him with the Lightning, winning the Stanley Cup and the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs’ most valuable player in 2004. He knows his style. He knows it can work. As he adjusts to a new city and a new team, it’s one less thing to worry about.

“I pretty much know what to expect from the coach,” Richards said.

For the Rangers, though, it goes beyond familiarity, beyond the fact that Tortorella knows what to expect from Richards.

Torts isn’t for everyone. He’s demanding, loud, profane. He will encourage you but also ride your butt and park it on the bench if necessary. When the Rangers arrived in Europe this week to play four exhibitions and their first two regular-season games, he made sure they knew they were on a business trip, not a vacation, reportedly barking at them throughout their first practice. He should be a joy to watch on HBO’s “24/7” reality series this season; he isn’t always a joy to play for.

Yet Richards chose to play for him, when he literally had other teams knocking on the door of his agent’s office on July 1.

Tortorella doesn’t need Richards to teach the kids the basics or support him with grand speeches in the dressing room. He already has them playing a blue-collar, shot-blocking style, and Richards isn’t a fiery leader anyway.

What he needs Richards to do is teach the kids the finer points of winning. The Rangers lost in the first round after Tortorella took over during the 2008-09 season, barely missed the playoffs in ’09-10 and lost in the first round last season.

“He’s going to play a big role on and off the ice, no question,” Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist(notes) said. “He’s won the Cup. He knows what it takes, and it’s important for us that he’s going to share that with the young guys.”

Said Lightning winger Martin St. Louis(notes), who played with Richards under Tortorella in Tampa Bay: “I’m sure they’ll lean a lot on Brad to show the way to the young guys, how it should be. Brad’s a veteran in this league now. He’s experienced a lot. There’s no doubt in my mind they couldn’t get a better guy to do that.”

There’s no doubt in St. Louis’ mind that Richards can click with Gaborik, too. After posting career highs in goals (42) and points (86) in 2009-10, Gaborik slipped to 22 goals and 48 points last season. He suffered through injuries and inconsistency – missing 20 games, bunching 12 of his goals in just four games, going through goal droughts of seven, eight and nine games.

Now Richards gives Gaborik a legitimate No. 1 center. Gaborik doesn’t have to carry the puck as much. He can use his speed to get to an open spot, and he can use his quick release to get off a shot when Richards finds him. Richards, the $60-million man, can help maximize the three years and $22.5 million left on Gaborik’s contract.

“He’s an unbelievable passer,” St. Louis said of his old linemate. “He sees the ice really well. He sees the play before it develops. He buys time for his players to get in the right spot, and he has a lot of composure.”

It might be a while yet before Richards feels at home in New York. He moved into an apartment in the summer – “a little different from Florida or Dallas, for sure,” he said – and tried to get accustomed to that during an earthquake and hurricane. After the Rangers finish their tour of the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Switzerland and Sweden, they have to stop in Long Island and tour the four Western Canada cities.

But finally, on Oct. 27, he will make his regular-season debut at Madison Square Garden – against one of his other suitors in free agency, the Toronto Maple Leafs. Eventually, he will feel like a New Yorker.

“It’s pretty neat how much is available to you, the convenience of New York City,” Richards said. “You can pretty much get anything within a four-block radius.”

Does that include a Cup?