Undated file photo of Chris Drury. The Rangers bought out...

Undated file photo of Chris Drury. The Rangers bought out Drury's contract on June 29. Credit: Getty Images

Whenever a rookie joined the Rangers in the past three years, captain Chris Drury sat next to the youngster on the plane or bus, discussed the team and helped him feel comfortable. "You really appreciate that it's Chris Drury coming over and talking to you," rookie Derek Stepan said.

Next season, the Blueshirts will need someone else to fill that role.

Drury, a 12-year NHL veteran, is now an unrestricted free agent. After months of speculation, the final season of his five-year, $35.25-million contract with the Rangers was officially bought out Wednesday.

With the extra $3.33 million in salary-cap room provided by the buyout, the Rangers are expected to make a multiyear offer Friday to free-agent center Brad Richards, who won a Stanley Cup with coach John Tortorella in Tampa in 2004. Richards played the last four seasons with the Dallas Stars, and has posted 716 points in 772 games and 62 points in 63 playoff games.

After the Rangers were eliminated from the playoffs in April, Tortorella acknowledged that Drury's chronic knee problem would force the organization to take a hard look at his future. The Rangers will absorb a $3.7-million cap hit this season and $1.7 million in 2012-13 under the buyout.

"Chris is a consummate professional, a tremendous competitor and an even better person," Rangers general manager Glen Sather said in a statement. "He gave his heart and soul to the Rangers."

Drury, who won a Stanley Cup in Colorado in 2001, has 255 goals and 360 assists in 484 games. He was the NHL rookie of the year in 1998-99; the previous year, while playing for Boston University, he won the Hobey Baker Award, given to the best college player in the nation.

A three-time U.S. Olympian, Drury had 62 goals and 89 assists in 264 games with the Rangers. He was used primarily on a third line, for faceoffs and the penalty kill for much of the last two seasons.

The 34-year-old forward was 1-4-5 in 24 games and had one assist in five playoff games this past season, which was interrupted by a twice-broken finger and knee surgery.

Drury's next stop could be Buffalo or Colorado, two of his former clubs with a young core who might appreciate his leadership, work ethic and defensive play at an appropriate salary.

"What more could you want from a captain?" center Brian Boyle said in April. "He's a pro. With all the things he's gone through this year, he's always been positive. It really showed his character."

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