GREENBURGH, N.Y. -- Veteran center Brad Richards, who struggled through the worst season of his career last year, is expected to play left wing on opening night Thursday in Phoenix, on a line with Rangers teammates Derek Stepan and Rick Nash.

"With five NHL centermen, we're going to use one of those guys on the wing and I think Brad is comfortable there," coach Alain Vigneault said. "He's an experienced player that just wants to come in and contribute."

Richards, who was demoted last season from the top line to the third and fourth lines by former coach John Tortorella and then benched for the final two playoff games, is set to give it his best shot.

"I've played [wing] a little in Tampa, and played with [Mike] Modano in Dallas, I can't remember, but I've never really played full time," Richards said. "If it works, it's great. We've still got two guys [Ryan Callahan and Carl Hagelin] out and we've got three centers who want to play in offensive situations. Hopefully, with [Stepan] and Nash, we can get something going."

Callahan will not be ready for the opener but is close.

"We're holding him back," Vigneault said. "We need seven to 14 days to make sure he's all right, so that's in the time frame of the first road trip," which includes Los Angeles, San Jose, Anaheim and St. Louis. Hagelin will be on long-term injured reserve, making him ineligible for 10 games.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

Stepan, who led the team in scoring last season, practiced for the first time after signing a two-year, $6.15-million contract on Thursday, and said he would be ready to play.

Notes & quotes: Forward J.T. Miller, rookie winger Jesper Fast, forward Arron Asham and defenseman Justin Falk, who was acquired from the Wild during the offseason, made the final cut. "I really liked his hockey smarts and skill level and being a righthander, with Ryan not being there for the start," Vigneault said of Fast. "Miller [who scored twice in three games] got better as the camp went on. He has a lot of work to do, but was able to put a foot in the door." . . . Forward Chris Kreider wasn't able to stick. "We came to the conclusion he needs to play big minutes," Vigneault said, "and as much as I believe he's real close and could probably play at this level, I wasn't going to be able to give him those minutes."