Everyone’s deflecting, but the Brad Richards buyout still looms

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LOS ANGELES — At the Rangers’ availability during Stanley Cup media day, Brad Richards’ contract status was an unavoidable topic.

“I’ve thought about it a lot,” Rangers GM Glen Sather said when asked about Richards’ future in New York. “But it’s not something that we’re thinking about right now. We’re focused on what we’re doing, what the team is doing, how we’re going to play, who we’re playing against.

“Certainly haven’t thought much about it lately. But that decision will come in the summer. It’s like all the decisions, we’ve got lots of free agents to sign. We’re happy with the way it is right now.”

Richards, 34, has enjoyed something of a bounce-back campaign this year, the third of his nine-year, $60 million deal. He racked up 51 points in 82 games — third on the Rangers in scoring — and 11 points through 20 playoff games, averaging close to 17 minutes a night.

It is, as Richards put it, miles ahead of where he was last postseason.

“It was the lowest point of my career,” Richards said, reflecting on being a healthy scratch during last year’s second-round playoff loss to Boston. “You never want to be on the outside looking in when your teammates are battling in what I consider to be the best part of hockey — the playoffs.

“That situation, when you’re in it, it’s awful.”

The Richards buyout talk has been happening since John Tortorella parked him last May. The former Conn Smythe winner said Sather provided a vote of confidence during the offseason — “Glen said he didn’t want to buy me out, and it made [me] feel like they weren’t giving up,” Richards explained — but this summer marks the last window of opportunity New York has to use a compliance buyout on his deal.

Financially speaking, it might be tough to pass on the chance.

Sather has three key RFA negotiations on the horizon: Derick Brassard, Chris Kreider and Mats Zuccarello, New York’s leading scorer in the regular season. Veteran role players like Brian Boyle, Dominic Moore, Benoit Pouliot and Anton Stralman all need new deals as well and while some might be expendable, some have also proven vital to this current Cup run.

Looking further down the road, the financials are even trickier. Next year will see Derek Stepan and Carl Hagelin go to restricted free agency, with Martin St. Louis and Marc Staal becoming unrestricted.

Which begs the question: Can New York continue to pay Richards $6.7 million a year until 2020? Or risk the potentially huge cap recapture penalty should he retire prior to fulfilling his deal?

Nobody is answering, and Richards insists this isn’t the time to dwell on it.

“I’ve been too busy,” he explained. It’s not the right time to think about it. It would hurt my game and it would hurt the team if I was worrying about it, so I haven’t really thought about it.”

He might not have, but others certainly are.