How Brad Richards Found Offense Through Defense

New York Rangers center Brad Richards (19) during the first period of the game at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey. The Rangers defeated the Devils 4-3.

Larry Brooks had a nice little appreciation of Brad Richards yesterday.

Brooks also credited New York Rangers coach John Tortorella, who moved Richards off of Marian Gaborik’s line when it became obvious the two just weren’t clicking.

Tortorella deserves a lot of credit for his handling of Richards.

Given Richards salary, it would seem that he belongs on a top line. But given that Richards’ north-south North American style doesn’t seem like it will ever mesh with Gaborik’s more European east-west leanings, Tortorella doesn’t press the issue (at even strength, anyway).

Instead, Tortorella embraced Richards for the player he is. For all of his offensive talents, Richards is really just a solid two-way player who happens to have a great shot. To leave him as a top-line center would have negated some of his defensive strengths.

Tortorella figured that out back in October, when he first separated Richards from Gaborik, putting him on a more physical line between Ryan Callahan and Brandon Dubinsky. Richards told the New York Post he appreciated the move:

I’m not seeing the game the way I should be, and when that’s the case and things feel they’re moving quicker than they should, sometimes getting me to grind it out is the best way to get me going, and Torts knows that…Playing with Cally and Dubi, working down low and having zone time, I believe that will be good for me and good for the team.

Playing to Richards’ defensive strengths is a bit of a culture shift for the Rangers. The past few years have seen the team bring in defensive specialists who were expected to perform offensive roles. Chris Drury was the latest victim of that policy, with Bobby Holik coming (and failing) before that.

Surely Tortorella saw what the pressure of needing to live up to a contract did to Drury, often rendering him both defensively and offensively weak. Seeing the same thing starting to happen to Richards, Tortorella decided to have him focus on defense.

And a funny thing happened. Offense came out of defense. Richards became comfortable shooting the puck more. He learned to get comfortable playing down low on the power play. He’s even looked connected to Gaborik when they’ve played on the same power play unit.

Brooks is right that Richards has been good for the Rangers. But a huge part of his success is due to his playing for a coach that plays to Richards’ strengths. Richards is paid like a top offensive player, but his true strength is his versatility in both ends.

Richards season picked up once he was allowed to properly practice his two-way game.

Tortorella deserves a lot of credit for giving Richards that kind of opportunity, despite what it says on Richards’ paycheck.