Brad Richards has stepped up to replace Ryan Callahan as the de facto captain. Credit: Getty Images
It was around 11:30 p.m. on the night of Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals and Henrik Lundqvist had just finished speaking in eloquent terms about reaching the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in his career.
Standing to his right was Brad Richards.
Lundqvist took two steps to his left, and Richards took the dais. He shifted for a moment, motioned toward his goaltender, and said in deadpan fashion, "Yeah, same thing," as a press conference filled with journalists, team and league executives dissolved into laughter.
It was a lighthearted moment that would not have happened in the truncated 2013 season but is apropos now that Richards has essentially captained the Rangers to the franchise's first Stanley Cup Final since 1994.
Two days after the 2013 season ended, Richards was surrounded by media at the Rangers' training facility, where he vowed he would improve as he dismissed talk about being a compliance buyout.
The Rangers had salary cap issues and the belief was then-coach John Tortorella safe. The smart money was on general manager Glen Sather using the organization's last compliance buyout on Richards to free the Rangers of their $6.667 million obligation to the center.
But two days after the 2013 Rangers parted ways, Sather fired Tortorella. Nearly a month after that, the executive introduced Alain Vigneault as the 35th head coach in franchise history and the first steps in the resurrection of Brad Richards' career had begun.
Hiring the even-keeled Vigneault to replace the volcanic Tortorella would have meant little if Richards had not spent the offseason training with Martin St. Louis in Connecticut.
Richards arrived to camp with a fresh outlook. Instead of the stifling system Tortorella preached, Vigneault implemented a style in which speed, depth and puck possession were valued.
Richards, among others, has benefited from the seismic change. Centering Carl Hagelin and St. Louis — acquired at the trade deadline for Ryan Callahan — Richards recorded 51 points in 82 games, and has been one of the Rangers' best players in the Stanley Cup playoffs, tallying 11 points in 20 games.
"He's been terrific," Sather told reporters Tuesday at Stanley Cup Media Day. "I mean, he's acting as the captain right now. He's certainly a leader in the room. He's been a leader on the ice. Great guy."
Still, he and the organization are soon to be at the same place they were one year ago.
The Rangers have $53.9 million in salary tied up in 13 players, and 11 pending free agents including restricted free agents Chris Kreider, Mats Zuccarello and Derick Brassard.
Not all 11 players will return, but Kreider, Zuccarello and Brassard are all due raises, plus there is the matter of locking up Marc Staal, who will be an unrestricted free agent. So even with the cap ceiling increasing to around the $69 million to $71.1 million range, there will be on-ice personnel changes.
Divorcing themselves of Richards' cap hit will allow the franchise additional financial flexibility. But, as Sather told reporters at Staples Center, there is a time and place for those decisions and it's not the eve of the Stanley Cup Final.
"I've thought about it a lot," Sather said. "But it's not something that we're thinking about right now. Certainly haven't thought much about it lately. But that decision will come in the summer. We've got lots of free agents to sign.
"I really can't make any comments about what's going to happen during the summer. If we win the Stanley Cup, if we lose the Stanley Cup, I think the decision is something that comes later on in the summer. It's not something that we need to get into talking with. He's with the New York Rangers."
Follow Rangers beat writer Denis Gorman on Twitter@DenisGorman.