NHL Puck Drops: Rangers' Brad Richards leads by example

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By Lyle Richardson

Earlier this month, the New York Rangers were on the verge of being eliminated in five games by the Pittsburgh Penguins in their division final series. They overcame that deficit to upset the Penguins and are poised to finish off the Montreal Canadiens in the Eastern Conference Final.

The Rangers’ veterans are largely responsible, particularly Murray Harbour’s Brad Richards. In the absence of a captain since shipping Ryan Callahan to Tampa Bay for Martin St. Louis at the trade deadline, Richards has filled that vacuum. His experience and leadership have proven invaluable.

Richards has certainly led by example. After struggling to score in the 2013 playoffs, the 34-year-old centre leads the Rangers in points (11). His six goals has him tied for their goalscoring lead with Carl Hagelin. He’s also tied with Derek Stepan and Ryan McDonagh for most power-play points (five) and with St. Louis and Derick Brassard in game-winning goals (two).

His improved play also creates a salary cap dilemma for Rangers GM Glen Sather. With nearly $54 million invested in just 13 players for next season, Sathers lacks sufficient cap space to re-sign or replace key players like Brassard, Chris Kreider, Mats Zuccarello, Brian Boyle, Benoit Pouliot and Dominic Moore.

Entering this year’s playoffs Richards was considered a certain candidate to receive a compliance buyout, which would free up over $6.66 million per season from the Rangers’ payroll. His post-season performance makes it difficult for Sather to justify buying him out.

L.A., Chicago reverse roles

The Los Angeles Kings are reminding the Chicago Blackhawks in this year’s Western Conference Final just how difficult repeating as Stanley Cup champions can be.

When the two clubs met in last year’s conference final it was the Kings who were the defending champions. The Blackhawks eliminated the Kings in five games before marching on to defeat the Boston Bruins in the Stanley Cup Final.

This year, with the roles reversed, the Kings have overcome an initial opening-game loss to take a 2-1 series lead entering Monday night's crucial Game 4.

A big reason for the Kings’ success thus far is their offence, which was leading all playoff teams in goals per game (3.29) going into Monday’s game. That’s considerable improvement over their regular-season numbers, when they were 26th overall, averaging 2.42 goals per game.

Veterans Anze Kopitar, Marian Gaborik, Jeff Carter, Justin Williams and Drew Doughty are stepping up their play, ranking among the post-season scoring leaders. The Kings’ scoring punch is also bolstered by young forwards Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson. Playing alongside Carter on the second line, Toffoli and Pearson each had ten points, providing the Kings with scoring depth they lacked through much of the regular season.

Pittsburgh Penguins

When the Pittsburgh Penguins suffered another early playoff exit, most fans and pundits expected head coach Dan Bylsma would lose his job. Instead, it was general manager Ray Shero who got the axe, while Bylsma’s fate will be determined by Shero's successor.

Only a year ago, Shero was named NHL general manager of the year. While he saddled the Penguins with expensive contracts for Kris Letang and Rob Scuderi, he also bolstered the roster each year with  shrewd trades. Over the years he added Chris Kunitz, James Neal, Matt Niskanen, Jussi Jokinen and Brandon Sutter.

Shero’s critics point out he failed to draft promising young scorers. However, he was also responsible for the pipeline of promising young defencemen (Olli Maatta, Derrick Pouliot, Brian Dumoulin and Simon Despres) within the Penguins’ system.

Whoever the Penguins hire as Shero’s successor will have to decide quickly what to do with Bylsma, They must also figure out how to bolster the Penguins’ depth, especially in skilled defensive players, without weakening the club’s core.

Vancouver Canucks

The Vancouver Canucks last week announced the hiring of former Boston Bruins assistant GM Jim Benning as their new general manager. Benning faces a difficult task of rebuilding the Canucks back into Stanley Cup contenders.

It won’t be easy. The Canucks’ core players — the Sedin twins, Kevin Bieksa, Ryan Kesler, Alex Burrows and Dan Hamshuis — are all in their thirties and carry expensive contracts. Their goaltending tandem consists of the largely inexperienced Eddie Lack and Jacob Markstrom. The Canucks’ farm system lacks depth in quality prospects. A new head coach must be hired to replace the recently-fired John Tortorella.

Benning also has limited cap space (a projected $11 million) to improve the Canucks. Don’t be surprised if he makes a trade or two to free up salary for young talent.

He could shed $5 million per season by shopping Kesler, who was reportedly willing to waive his no-trade clause leading up to the trade deadline. Defenceman Alex Edler ($5 million per season) could also become a trade candidate. Benning could also free up another $4.25 million by buying out oft-injured winger David Booth.

Lyle Richardson is a freelance writer

with The Hockey News and runs

the website Spector’s Hockey. His

column will appear in The Guardian

throughout the NHL playoffs.

Organizations: Pittsburgh Penguins, New York Rangers, Los Angeles Kings Montreal Canadiens Chicago Blackhawks Canucks Boston Bruins NHL The Hockey News

Geographic location: Murray Harbour, Tampa Bay, St. Louis Chicago

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