It's very difficult to predict what might eventually happen with Brad Richards and the Stars, but I believe that at this point in time I can safely say: The Stars want to keep Richards and Richards wants to stay here.
And that's a good basis for a long-term relationship.
Richards is the type of player that GM Joe Nieuwendyk envisions when he sees the final product of this team. He is smart, dedicated, talented, professional and can embrace a high-skilled approach to the game. Heck, Richards has already done it, helping Tampa Bay win the 2004 Stanley Cup with a Lightning team whose motto was: ``Safe is Death.''
He gets it, and he's smart enough to let others know how this works.
Now, the Stars are still taking baby steps along this path, and maybe Nieuwendyk's team when fully mature won't be so aggressive in its pursuit of offensive hockey as the Lightning was, but some of that depends on Richards. If he sticks around, he will have a big role in deciding what kind of hockey team this is. He's that good.
Richards was slow to adapt to the Stars after being traded to Dallas in February of 2008 for Mike Smith, Jussi Jokinen and Jeff Halpern. He can be pretty quiet and even a bit moody at times. He is also a person who pushes hard for perfection and can be critical. Mix that with a couple of hand injuries, a coaching change and the money issues with the owner, and it has been a bit of a battle for him to get comfortable in Dallas. But he is comfortable now. He's comfortable with the town and with the team, and he appears ready to get on a roll.
Last season was a great example. Richards embraced the new system pushed by Marc Crawford and he tallied 91 points in 80 games. That's the second greatest offensive season a player has had since this team moved to Dallas in 1993 (when Mike Modano had 93 points). It was the seventh best point total in the NHL. Those are superstar numbers. What's more, it's not that unusual for Richards to be at that level. He posted 91 points in 2005-06 with Tampa Bay. Despite all of the transition issues and injuries, he had 11 points in 12 games when he came to Dallas in 2007-08 and he had 48 points in 56 games in 2008-09. If he's healthy, you can pretty much put him down for 80 points.
In addition, he has shown an ability to help young players like Loui Eriksson and James Neal find their goal-scoring touch. Yes, both youngsters are talented and have the potential for top-level goal-scoring, but Eriksson became a different player once he established his chemistry with Richards, and Neal has shown he's a much more dangerous offensive player when he plays beside Richards.
Even Steve Ott showed last season that when he was given a chance to play on Richards' line and on the power play with
Richards, he was a much better goal-scorer.
One of the criticisms is that Richards does all of his work on the power play (he was second in the NHL with 40 power play points); and while I appreciate that, I still don't get it fully. Yes, you want to be a great player at even strength. Yes, you worry when a player has 91 points and is still minus in the plus/minus (Richards was minus-12). But the best players in the league do much of their damage with the man advantage, and the best teams in the league usually have a very strong power play. A strong power play not only allows you the ability to score more goals, it allows you the ability to force the other team to back off its aggression. Detroit typically has the least fights per year because the power play acts as the enforcer for the team. It seems there are plenty of top-level players throughout history who have made a living scoring on the power play.
So why aren't we talking about building the team around Richards for the next six or seven years? There is a little issue of money here. Richards will make $7.8 million next season and has the ability to become an unrestricted free agent next summer. The Stars are a team that is being sold and is on a tight budget. So both sides are waiting for the new owner to take over before they can really even start negotiations.
The Stars will definitely want to try to reduce the salary cap hit for Richards. As good as he has been, Richards was not selected for Team Canada for the 2010 Olympics and is often not listed among the Top 10 centers in the league when rankings are done by the media. The trade and the injuries have put him in a place where it's a little tough to define what his salary level should be. Plus, the team would love to spread the wealth around even with a new owner. In addition, Richards had hip surgery in the summer, and while he just turned 30, there still is some concern if injuries will be a problem in the future.
That said, Richards played through the injury last season and still tallied 91 points. He appears to be a very mentally-strong individual, and most of his injuries are from collisions (hand, wrist) and not from wear and tear. In addition, it will be interesting to see how the league views Richards if he puts up another 90-point season. He could really push his stock through the roof and become one of the premier centers in the league.
As for the contract side of things, Richards has to be sure this is a place he wants to play for the rest of his career. Unrestricted free agency allows a player to select an organization where he feels he has the best chance to win. If the Stars don't get the right owner, why would Richards want to give up the chance to study new options? Plus, if ever Richards wanted to see what his true value is, why not open the doors to free agency and keep the Stars open as one of his options?
The problem with that theory is the Stars probably can't allow it to get that far. If the new ownership isn't settled or if Richards doesn't want to sign a contract extension by February, the Stars will probably have to trade him by the trade deadline.
So that makes this a pretty important year, eh?
Richards will have the opportunity to define himself as one of the truly great (and well-paid) players in the league and the Stars will have the opportunity to select quite possibly the most important player for the future of the team. Or, both sides could go their own way and we could start all over again.
As I said at the start, the good thing is that both sides seem to want to find a way to make this work out long-term, and that's a great place to be right now.