GREENBURGH, N.Y. - Brad Richards, facing the strong possibility that he has played his last game as a Ranger, was the first player to meet with coach Alain Vigneault on breakup day Monday, and chose not to speak with the waiting media afterward.
Read into that what you will.
The Rangers must decide before June 30 whether to use their remaining compliance buyout under the collective-bargaining agreement on the 34-year-old center. He has six years remaining on his contract, which carries a hefty cap hit of $6.67 million per season.
The Rangers have 11 free agents, many of whom they'd like to sign, and having Richards' cap space available would make the math far easier.
In what sounded more like an appreciation than an endorsement for a future here, Vigneault -- who demoted Richards to fourth-line left wing for the last two games of the Stanley Cup Final -- said: "I think if you look at Brad's overall season, he had a real good year. In Games 4 and 5, we had some decisions to make, but his overall play five-on-five and on the power play during the year was very good. I'm very happy with what he brought to the table. From Day 1, he was an extension of the coaching staff. I think he should walk away from this season very pleased on how he played and how he contributed to our team."
Vigneault called himself "a Brad Richards fan" and said Richards is a "classy, classy" individual who helped him when he coached Prince Edward Island's junior team.
Asked about Richards' mindset during the meeting, Vigneault said: "He knows we've got some decisions to make. They're not easy. He's going to be a pro and he's going to wait until we make up our mind."
Vigneault said his second loss in the Stanley Cup Final -- the first was to Boston in seven games while coaching a beat-up Vancouver club in 2011 -- will "haunt me and my group for some time." He indicated that there will be several personnel changes by October.
Defenseman Ryan McDonagh, widely considered the front-runner to be named captain, said he is "absolutely" ready if chosen. "I felt more confident as the year went on,'' he said. "When you've been given a lot more responsibility and are able to step up and help our team win a lot of games, I think that helps guys believe and rally around you."
Said Vigneault: "Next year's team is going to be different. It's going to be a challenge to make the playoffs again. If you take players individually, most of them had . . . close to their best season. There's a working relationship that should get better. We've got a good young foundation, we've got a good core group that I'd like to see if we can keep together, but there's financial restrictions that come into the process."
Besides Richards, the players who could be impacted by those limits are four unrestricted free agents who played regularly -- second-pair defenseman Anton Stralman and forwards Benoit Pouliot, Brian Boyle and Dominic Moore -- as well as defenseman Marc Staal, whose contract expires after the 2014-15 season.
"I've been with four teams in seven years," said Stralman, 27, who likely will seek more than $4 million per season. "All we're looking for is stability. This is obviously where we'd like to stay. I hope it's going to happen."
Said Staal: "Any player would prefer to be locked up before you start playing [in October]. It's not going to be the end of the world if nothing happens, but obviously, you'd rather have something done than not."
The 6-7 Boyle, who earned $1.7 million this season and played on the fourth line, wants "more responsibility sometimes," Vigneault said. "His role on our team is very important. It's first penalty-killing, and when we've got a lead, we're sending him out. If he's satisfied with having that role, I would definitely want him back. His 12 to 14 minutes a game are huge minutes. Some players don't see it. I'm hoping that he sees that."
Vigneault wants to keep restricted free agents Mats Zuccarello and Chris Kreider (and presumably Derick Brassard and John Moore), but he stressed that the team needs to add prospects annually.
"You have to. Just look at L.A.," he said. "Probably their most effective line was the one with the two kids [Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson] and [Jeff] Carter. Hopefully, we'll have a few guys pushing at the door."
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