x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Top contenders New York Rangers pivot on Brad Richards

Centre's arrival has brought some swagger to an otherwise workman-like bunch.

The ability of Brad Richards, left, to do a bit of everything has made it easier for his teammates.
The ability of Brad Richards, left, to do a bit of everything has made it easier for his teammates.

The New York Rangers landed the biggest fish in free agency last summer when they reeled in the top-line centre Brad Richards with a nine-year, US$60 million (Dh220m) deal.

Richards was easily the most coveted free agent, following up a Stanley Cup championship and play-off MVP honours with Tampa Bay in 2004 with several productive post-lockout seasons with the Dallas Stars.

He is a point-a-game player, a leader by example and, by all accounts, a great guy in the dressing room. Richards, who comes from Canada's tiniest province of Prince Edward Island, might not seem like a bright lights and big city type, but beyond that, the move looked like a great fit.

But did anyone think it would work out this well this quickly?

The Rangers were a competitive team in recent years, but not a powerhouse.

They were a bubble play-off team - making it last season, falling just short in 2010 - on the strength of hard work, team defence and great goaltending from the perennial star stopper, Henrik Lundqvist.

They had one truly electrifying player in the sniper Marian Gaborik, although he dropped from 42 goals in 2009/10 to just 22 last season. Injuries, as often has been the case with Gaborik, were a major factor.

Otherwise, the Rangers were a shot-blocking, workman-like bunch who embraced their coach John Tortorella's all-for-one philosophy, but sweat and blood only gets you so far in the NHL. In the end, you need some skill to carry you over the top.

Enter Richards.

Although his offensive production is down a tick - with 31 points in 45 games - there is no denying the overall trickle-down effect.

The Rangers have some swagger. They got off to a great start and climbed to the top of the standings - not bad for a team that had to give their all just to scrape into the post-season in recent years. With Richards slotted as the No 1 centre, players such as Ryan Callahan and Derek Stepan are able to fill second-line roles and avoid opponents' top defenders.

Richards, meanwhile, has gone up against the best his whole career; he is used to it, and he is good enough to contribute offensively. And while the dreamy Richards-Gaborik duo has been split up to spread around the offence, it certainly has not hurt Gaborik, who leads New York in scoring with 23 goals - already one more than last year - and 37 points.

The Rangers appear to have all the pieces for a run at a title: a truly great goaltender, a big, mobile and physical defence corps, a game-breaking goalscorer in Gaborik and plenty of secondary offensive support.

And, of course, the final piece, Richards, who does a little bit of everything and makes it a little bit easier for everybody else.