GREENBURGH, N.Y. - Calling his 2013 season "a mess," Brad Richards vowed to come back stronger after his most disappointing NHL season.
But to which team will he come back? it seems all but certain that Richards, 33 -- the Rangers' marquee signing in July 2011 -- will have the remaining seven seasons of his nine-year, $60-million contract bought out next month.
General manager Glen Sather has three restricted free agents (Ryan McDonagh, Carl Hagelin and Derek Stepan) to sign this offseason, then three unrestricted free agents (Ryan Callahan, Dan Girardi and Henrik Lundqvist) to sign in the summer of 2014.
With a steep penalty looming if Richards retires before his deal is up, one amnesty buyout remaining and the risk that, if Richards is injured, the Rangers will not be able to use that buyout after next season, the writing appears to be on the wall for Richards, a healthy scratch the final two playoff games.
The buyout window opens 48 hours after the last Stanley Cup Finals game next month and closes July 5, the day free agency begins.
Richards said the lockout, in which he was a regular presence at the negotiating table, had an impact on his subpar season and said it is time to evaluate his offseason regimen to prepare for next season, wherever that may be.
"Obviously, I've got to do something to get back," Richards said as the Rangers dispersed for the offseason. "There's no way there's no regret, or disappointment. Like I said, there's a lot of other things that can, might or won't [happen], I don't know. I signed here to be a Ranger for a lot longer than a year and a half, and I still hope to do that. But I've got to take care of how I can play, and that's all on me.''
John Tortorella spoke Monday of the relationship between himself and Richards and said benching his center will have no effect on their bond, one that goes back more than a decade.
"I think he understands that stuff," Tortorella said. "It happened at a time where we didn't want to do it. It is a bit of a wake-up call as far as where we are, what we expect, and I believe he understands that. And I do believe he'll turn himself around."
Richards sounded sure he will be better next season, but less so about the closeness with his longtime coach.
"When it happens, you're never really understanding," Richards said of the benching . . . "Obviously, it's another thing in the relationship that will never change now, but . . . I want to play hockey, that's all I'm worried about. Relationships will come and go."
The Dolan family owns controlling interests in the Rangers, Madison Square