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Brad Richards, John Tortorella, and the agony of the healthy scratch

It’s no fun to watch anything age. Your favorite T-shirt eventually rips; your dog doesn’t prance like he used to; your moppet niece becomes a sullen tween; Brad Richards is a healthy scratch. You know it’s bound to happen, but it sneaks up all the same. Soon you’ve been pickpocketed, stripped of your dignity, reduced to paranoia and loss. Which is pretty much how things felt leading up to Thursday’s second-round Bruins-Rangers game, with Boston poised to end everyone’s misery once and for all with a clean sweep of the Blueshirts, and New York doing whatever it could to hang on for a Game 5 on Saturday.

Less than two years ago, a ho-hum class of free agents left teams like the L.A. Kings and New York Rangers scrambling to charm the hockey pants off Richards, a then-31-year old center who had won the Conn Smythe in Tampa Bay when he was 24. The Rangers won out with a front-loaded nine-year, $60 million contract that, like anything super-hip at the time, now appears hopelessly dated. (Brian Burke, who seemed dowdy at the time for eschewing the practice, now appears downright sensible.)

Anyway, Richards’s playmaking ability would make him the perfect fit alongside winger Marian Gaborik, the logic went, though the reality was not quite so straightforward. “It didn’t look good at all,” Rangers coach John Tortorella later reflected about the experiment. “It was so well-chronicled: ‘When Brad Richards gets here, him and Gabby are going to play …’ I wasn’t sure. I’ve seen it so many times; it looks great on paper, and usually it doesn’t work.”

One season later, Gaborik is a Columbus Blue Jacket and Richards has fallen through the Rangers’ depth chart floor. Normally it would be no surprise to see a fourth-liner cycled out of the lineup, especially by a desperate team gazing into the abyss of a potential sweep. But when that fourth-liner’s name is Brad Richards, people take notice. Didn’t he come to New York in part because of his familiarity with Tortorella?1 Wasn’t he performing at a respectable 60-plus point pace during the regular season? Isn’t he under contract with the Rangers through the faraway, sci-fi-y year 2020? He was supposed to be the guy, not that guy. Is he like A-Rod? Is he like Amar’e? Is he done?

“Nothing is over,” Richards said on Thursday, when he was asked what he’d do now. “Work harder and try my best to never let it happen again.”

In the collective bargaining agreement that ended the lockout this season, all teams were given two “compliance buyouts” — often referred to as amnesty buyouts — to be used either this offseason or next. (The rule was widened to allow teams to use a buyout before this season; New York and Montreal took advantage of this to unload Wade Redden and Scott Gomez.) With one buyout remaining, it’s been rumored that the Rangers could amnesty Richards. Could Tortorella be trying to position a beleaguered player as the scapegoat?

Two columns that came out in the wake of the healthy scratch news Thursday had different takes on that. CBC’s Ron MacLean (who discloses early in his piece to being friends with Richards) criticized Tortorella for ignoring Richards’s history and used words like “ingratitude” and “thoughtless” and “dignity” and “respect,” comparing the slight to Mike Keenan questioning Wayne Gretzky.

The New York Post‘s Larry Brooks, on the other hand, wrote that by scratching Richards, Tortorella “save[d] the coach from himself, his instincts, and his loyalty to one of his all-time favorite players.” He continued: “Tortorella will lose no one in the room because of this decision. There was far greater risk of him losing the room, as it were, by continuing to give Richards critical ice time that he did not earn.”

After Alain Vigneault was fired as coach of the Vancouver Canucks just two seasons after leading them to within a game of the Stanley Cup finals, I heard one commentator muse that sometimes a coach needs a fresh start just as much as a team might, because otherwise he can get too attached to his guys. Here, Tortorella was ostensibly trying to avoid that trap. Could it be a tactical move to cover his ass? Ask that question and he’ll tell you to kiss it, the way he did Thursday night in a rambling preemptive strike against the notion that Brad Richards deserved any blame. You can read the full transcript here — “he’s a hell of a hockey player that’s having a hell of a time” is, for my money, immensely poetic — but this part stuck out:

I’m playing Brad on the fourth line. He’s playing seven or eight minutes (a game). It’s not good for him. It doesn’t work playing Brad Richards that way. But I also feel some other guys have played better, so that’s where he is in our lineup. It just doesn’t work. I’m not playing him the proper way, but I can’t put him in a situation on the other lines because I think the other lines have stepped up.

One of the frequent knocks on Tortorella has always been that he is so set in his hard-nosed, blue-collar, shot-blocking, just-goin’-about-our-business (the right) ways that he misuses his talent. (He also gets called out for having favorites, though he did scratch Brian Boyle earlier this year.) He benched Gaborik intermittently, he never had much use for the speedy Mats Zuccarello, and he publicly cut promising young Chris Kreider down to size with seemingly each chance he got. When he repeatedly used the word “stinks” in reference to Carl Hagelin — one of the Rangers’ best players this season — it was further fodder for those who believe that Tortorella doesn’t treat his players with smarts or respect.

But the Hagelin comments rang to me as the botched remarks of a man trying bemusedly, if pretty badly, to explain his odd predicament: that Hagelin can sometimes be too fast. “Every time I put him on, he stinks,” he said. “I think he’s too quick. He’s a jitterbug and he screws it up.” Sure, maybe not the comments you want to blindside your own player with to the media — poor Hagelin was promptly asked about the remarks, and seemed genuinely taken aback — but also more rambling than malicious. Besides, there are signs that he may be adjusting his position on some of his more skillful players. Zuccarello has been used effectively since his return this season, and Tortorella seems to be seeing that just as Richards doesn’t belong on the fourth line, neither does Kreider.

When the 22-year-old scored the game winner against Boston on Thursday night, it was off a gorgeous and speed-harnessing feed from a more appropriate line mate, Rick Nash. On the bench, John Tortorella smiled with “son of a bitch”–style joy; the next morning, he’d be sarcastically lambasted by New York talk-radio hosts for saying he was “happy for Kreids.” But he would not be fired that night, and he probably won’t be fired at all this offseason. (Why not give him one more chance to have a full season with this roster, and let him go if things don’t appreciably change?)

Whether Richards will be amnestied remains unclear, though I think the Rangers are better served waiting until 2014 to consider the option. But regardless of how things play out, it’s been a painful process to watch: the imperceptible slowing down of a guy that suddenly becomes all you can see. David Foster Wallace, writing about professional tennis players, described that they stood out because of their “compact nonchalance … the suggestion is of a very powerful engine in low gear.” Brad Richards can’t idle like that anymore. He no longer purrs.

“If you’ve played tennis at least a little, you probably have some idea how hard a game is to play really well,” Wallace went on. “I submit to you that you really have no idea at all.”

Lighting the Lamp: The Week’s Sickest Snipes

There’s something so sturdy about this Sidney Crosby backhand. It’s a child fist-scribbling with a giant crayon but managing to stay within the lines. It’s a quality snow shovel after a blizzard. It’s Brutalist architecture. It was the Penguins’ sixth goal in a 7-3 win over Ottawa on Wednesday that puts the Penguins one win away from the Eastern Conference finals. The Senators and Penguins meet again tonight in Pittsburgh.

Piling on the Pylons: The Week’s Worst Performers

Going into Game 4 of the Chicago-Detroit series on Thursday, it seemed like Hawks captain Jonathan Toews was poised for an “I told you so” sort of game. He’d been absent from the scoring log for the entirety of the playoffs, an oh-fer that was picking up steam as an official story line, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. In Game 3, he recorded seven shots on goal, tying a season high; throughout the playoffs he’s been second on the Blackhawks in shots per game. He’s been matched up against the likes of Niklas Kronwall and Henrik Zetterberg, and yet his possession numbers have held up well.

“I think he does a lot of things,” said Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville, who tried moving Toews to a new line to shake something up in Game 4. (The attempt failed; Detroit won 2-0 to take a 3-1 series lead.) “Whether it’s production on how you measure his effort, puck possession, how he plays in his own end, how he plays without the puck, how he kills penalties, how he’s in the face-off circle — there’s a lot of elements to his game that helps our team game.”

Left unsaid, though, was that in at least two of those categories, Toews’s Game 4 was perhaps his worst of the series. His play without the puck, particularly in the second period, began to verge on the feral: In the span of about five minutes he was put in the penalty box three times, twice for high-sticking and once for hooking. (Which in turn meant he wasn’t quite up to his usual effectiveness on the penalty kill.) Toews was so incensed with the calls that Brent Seabrook skated over at one point and leaned into the penalty box to try to buck him up.

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“We’d like to keep him in the box,” mused the Red Wings’ Jonathan Ericsson after the game. “He’s not as good for them in the box.” You can dispute a lot of the bad things that have been said about Toews over the past week, but that’s not one of them.

Taking It Coast-to-Coast: A Lap Around the League

• One of the most fruitful trades of last season was the L.A. Kings’ exchange of Jack Johnson and a no. 1 pick for Jeff Carter. (Considering the haste with which the Columbus Blue Jackets were trying to get rid of him, it was kind of like picking up a mansion in foreclosure.) But what made that trade possible — what made Johnson expendable, really — was the rising stock of Slava Voynov, the 23-year-old defenseman who made a name for himself late last season, has been learning English via Breaking Bad, and has now become an integral part of the Kings’ blue line. His seeing-eye shot from the point Thursday night gave the Kings a 2-0 lead over the San Jose Sharks and helped put them one win away from returning to the Western Conference finals. After scoring six goals during this regular season, he has netted four in the playoffs. Oh, and Jeff Carter hasn’t been too shabby, either.

• The NHL coaching merry-go-round twirls on! The Vancouver Canucks fired Vigneault this week, and the question isn’t really whether he’ll find another job, but how quickly. (You wonder how hard a team like the Dallas Stars will try to hire him.) The Colorado Avalanche, meanwhile, announced Thursday the hiring of former Avalanche great Patrick Roy as coach — which pairs nicely, I suppose, with the earlier promotion of former Avalanche great Joe Sakic to executive vice-president of hockey operations. (Seriously — this is either going to be entirely awesome or an abject disaster.) General manager Greg Sherman remains employed, though it’s increasingly unclear in what capacity; at this point I imagine him in sort of a George Costanza role in which the less he does, the more he’ll be praised. With the first overall pick in the draft and the chance to make nice local headlines by picking up young defenseman Seth Jones (whose father, Popeye, famously asked Joe Sakic for hockey training tips for his son while he was a Denver Nugget), it’s a fun time to be an Avalanche fan. With Roy behind the bench, there’s sure to be some good times (and hard hearing).

• Chris Peters of The United States of Hockey has an excellent breakdown of the IIHF World Championships and a look ahead to Team USA’s positioning heading into Sochi next February. One item of note: Nashville Predators GM David Poile will likely be the Team USA general manager.

• Speaking of Poile, he recently fired Nashville associate coach Peter Horacek after 10 years and hired former NHL star Phil Housley, who had been coaching high school hockey in Minnesota but helmed the gold-medal-winning U.S. team at the World Juniors in Ufa, Russia, this winter.

• T.J. Galiardi channeled Rasheed Wallace, of all people, in his comments about Kings goalie Jonathan Quick on Wednesday. “You guys see it,” he said after accusing Quick of embellishing contact. “The thing is, with video, something we like to say around here is ‘ball don’t lie.’ It’s an old basketball term. But when you watch the video, the video doesn’t lie.”

• The Chicago Blackhawks were shut out for the first time all season on Thursday night as the Red Wings’ Jimmy Howard made 28 saves, a great number of which were streaking breakaways or odd-man rushes like the above. His play this postseason has been no surprise to Detroit fans, who are quick to point out that Howard had a .937 even-strength save percentage this season that brought him equal with Henrik Lundqvist, but he’s now making himself well known on the national stage — and attracting all the right fans. After the game, wrote ESPN.com’s Craig Custance, a group of reporters were gathered around Howard when “surprisingly, the crowd parted … right down the middle, a path among the media opened up and Gordie Howe stepped forward.” And after this neo-Moses parted the Red Sea, he shook the hand of the Red’s G. “Mr. Hockey,” Custance described Howard as whispering. “How are you? Nice to see you.”

Here’s an incredibly cool interactive NHL draft tool that dates back to 1963. It’s nearly as addictive as GeoGuessr!

And a Beauty! The Week’s Nicest in Net

Jonathan Quick stones Patrick Marleau not once but twice. No embellishment necessary!

Tuukka Rask almost makes up for his earlier-game error with this sprawling trio of overtime stops.

I totally thought that Jeff Carter had scored on this wraparound chance. Judging by the reaction in Staples Center, I was not alone.

Chirping Like a Champ: The Best Mouthing Off

If any PR consultants are looking for fresh material for the “media training” sessions that professional athletes are given from time to time, the events of Wednesday night provide a pretty good case study for why you oughtn’t always speak your mind. Weary after a 7-3 Game 4 loss in which the Ottawa Senators gave up goals every which way, Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson was in a truthful mood. Asked whether it was feasible for the team to win three in a row and come back. “Probably not,” he said. “Their depth and our play right now … it doesn’t look too good.”

A fatalistic answer? Totally. (Alfredsson went on to elaborate, saying among other things that because of the mistakes the Senators made, “now we’re back on our heels again. We didn’t shut them down when it matters.”) A dirty little quote when stripped of context? Sure. But I was surprised that many people seemed to view it that way, almost devoid of any relation to anything else. “Imagine if Ovechkin said that,” people clucked. OK, but then am I allowed to imagine if Jarome Iginla said it too?

Alfredsson is a fiercely beloved institution in Ottawa, one whose “leadership” bona fides are beyond dispute. The other night he scored with seconds left on the clock to send the game to overtime, where the Senators earned the win. He’s 40 years old and has averaged more time on ice in these playoffs than any forward on the team except Kyle Turris. Do people really think he’s, what, just given up? We complain when athletes are clichémongers2 but lose our minds when they’re just honest dudes.

Alfredsson addressed his remarks on Thursday, but from the light exhaustion in his voice he almost seemed a little mystified that he should even need to. (Erik Karlsson teased the media by putting it this way: “I don’t think he meant anything. I think he probably thought it was a stupid question and got it over with.”) In hindsight, at any rate, his pessimism has so far been right: You just can’t win. I guess it’s true what they say: If you need a friend, get a dog.

(Don’t even get me started on Paul MacLean’s press conference. I’ll just say: Shine on, you crazy diamond.)

Hockey Haiku

I can’t help but miss Hockeywood v1.0 John Candy > Tom Cruise.

Filed Under: Events, New York Rangers, NHL Playoffs, NHL Viewing Guide, Sports, Teams

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Katie Baker is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ katiebakes

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