Saturday, March 1, 2008

Brad Richards makes smash hit debut for Stars

The Dallas Stars entered Tuesday's trade deadline with one thing in mind. That would be to acquire a gamebreaker. Mission accomplished.

Most knowledgable hockey fans know that the face of the franchise since the team arrived in northern Texas fifteen years ago has been Mike Modano. But outside their back-to-back Stanley Cup Finals appearances that includes their only championship in 1999, the Stars have failed to perform up to the same expectations that they achieved during the regular season. Only twice since the Stars have been in Dallas have they missed playoffs. It's safe to say they have been a true perennial playoff team. Modano had a major say in that success during the last decade and a half.

But Modano is no longer that prolific point producer he used to be earlier in his career. This is despite earlier this season becoming the NHL's all-time points leader for an American-born player. From personal distractions off the ice to injuries to not feeling completely comfortable as the team captain after the departure of Derian Hatcher, he simply cannot carry the Stars far into the playoffs by himself. At 37 years old, he has been longing for quite some time for a difference-making teammate to play with in the twilight of his brilliant career.

He may have gotten that in the form of Brad Richards.

Modano's ex-teammate Brett Hull is now the co-general manager with Les Jackson, this season on an interim basis. Hull and Jackson made the bold trade on Tuesday to acquire Richards from the Tampa Bay Lightning, but it came at a high cost. First, Richards had to waive his no-trade clause in his contract that pays him a hefty $7.8 million per season through the 2010-2011 campaign. Heading to Tampa, the Stars lost a high quality backup goaltender in Mike Smith who had at one point challenged Marty Turco for the starting job. While Jeff Halpern wasn't a forward that was highly productive on the scoresheet, he was still of significant value. Even more so, Jussi Jokinen had been an important part of the Stars lineup. I must admit I usually think of his career success in shootouts for Dallas (17 for 29), especially two seasons ago when he scored on his first ten attempts. With the emergence of a career season from Niklas Hagman, parting ways with Jokinen was eased for the Stars if they were to get Richards, it is a player they were targeting for a while. However, when I first saw what the Stars gave up in the deal, I felt they gave up too much depth.

"Brad Richards is a special player," Hull said on Tuesday after the trade was completed. "Right here we have a guy who has won the Stanley Cup, won the Olympic Gold Medal, won the Conn Smythe Trophy being the MVP of the NHL playoffs. Since the trade went down Les and I have gotten calls from all over the league, from not only media that have known Brad, but he's gotten endorsements from his GM in Tampa Jay Feaster, from Wayne Gretzky who has given him rave reviews from him not only as a player but as a person. When you get people like that saying the things they are saying about him, you know you've got a quality guy."

Depending on whether or not the "high risk, high reward" theory holds true, should the 27-year-old Richards be the difference in how far Dallas goes in the playoffs this season, it's a trade well worth it. Given the position the Stars were in as the trade deadline approached, they were a pleasant surprise to have among the top point totals in the entire league. I have been pretty skeptical of their placing in the NHL going into this week. They had 85 points entering Thursday's home game against the Chicago Blackhawks, second to the slumping Detroit Red Wings who had lost 8 of their previous 9 games. I didn't even believe they were a Stanley Cup contender on the day of this trade given their recent playoff exits.

But after the Stars' 7-4 victory over Chicago at the American Airlines Center, I have moved them up into the list of four teams that I believe winning the Stanley Cup is truly a real possibility. Now breathing down the neck of Detroit thanks to a very impressive 16-4 run since January 17th, the Pacific Division-leading Stars have a shot at nabbing the top seed in the Western Conference playoffs by the time the "second season" begins on April 9th.

How did Richards fare in his Stars debut on Thursday night? It was more than just a good first impression. It was downright a blockbuster performance as he set a Dallas record with a career-high 5 assists. That's right, he had FIVE assists. It was the kind of night where you as an unknown actor or actress would earn a standing ovation at a sold out theater under the bright lights of Broadway and then get rave reviews the next day in countless publications. Only here, we know who Richards is. He already has become a star in the NHL despite having been on a Lightning team that has fallen back on tough times in earning wins. There was no need for the name tag at a "getting to know you" event. Stars fans know what their team was getting.

Hagman scored a career-high three goals thanks directly in part to Richards setting him up for his first NHL hat trick in 467 regular season games he's played in six NHL seasons. Hagman already has a career-best 25 goals this season. In case you were wondering how Modano fared with Richards as his teammate, not bad at all, I must say. Even though Richards spent time primarily on the penalty kill with him on Thursday, Modano tallied his 525th NHL goal (now 29th all-time) and also had an assist in the victory. He was the last Stars player to record five points in a game back on February 10, 2002.

Antti Miettinen as the third member of the newly-formed Richards scoring line also recorded a goal and an assist. Richards, Hagman and Miettinen combined for 10 points on the night.

John Trachina of the Dallas Stars official web site asked head coach Dave Tippett for his impression of his newest player.

"He's just a good player in all situations," Tippett said. "The biggest thing we talked about is he just wants to come in and fit in. He recognizes that we've got a pretty good team here, he wants to come in and fit in with our group. Tonight, he played all parts of the game, he played penalty kill, power play, that line with Hagman and Miettinen was a great line for us, gave us great balance throughout the game. All three of our top three lines scored in the game, so that by-committee scoring, we’re going to need it spread around and that makes us hard to play against."

Mike Heika of the Dallas Morning News brought up a pretty interesting angle regarding the arrival of Richards to the team. Richards and Hagman were at one time on opposite sides of the Sunshine State rivalry given Hagman began his career with the Florida Panthers.

"Back then, I would try to run everything and try to stir things up. There were a couple of heated yelling and shoving matches with Brad," Hagman said.

"He's always in your face, and he's a pain to play against," Richards added about his new teammate. "But that's because he plays the game the right way."

Undoubtedly, if Richards goes on to play like this on a game-by-game basis having good chemistry with teammates such as Hagman, the Stars may be even tougher to beat then they have been in their last 20 games. There will be less pressure to rely heavily on Tippett's outstanding defensive-oriented system to win hockey games. That system has been top notch since he's been behind the bench. Under Tippett, Dallas has been in contention for the William Jennings Trophy every season as the league's best defensive team based on the performance of their goaltenders. Turco has recently had Smith and Johan Hedberg backing him up in net. With the arrival of Johan Holmqvist from Tampa Bay in Tuesday's trade, he could even benefit from who he has in front of him when he gets to play.

"We need to continue to play our game and play within our system defensively, offensively, with speed, and whatever the game plan is," Turco told the media on Friday as they prepared to face the Nashville Predators the next night.

Chemistry and defense wins championships. Following Tuesday's trade and Thursday's night impression the Stars made to the hockey world with Richards in their lineup, they might have both. Modano certainly sees it.

"You worry about chemistry, [but] talent and skill guys never have a hard time adjusting," Modano told Tracey Myers of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "They raise their level, and everyone wants to raise theirs with them. Those type of players, they're few and far between that can make an impact like that."


Kirsten said...

Why's it gotta be the Stars of all teams? UGH.

Paul said...

I understand what ya mean, Kirsten. ;)

No really, I have to be unbiased if fans of all teams are to read my NHL blog.

Kirsten said...

I know, I know, but since I am a Wild blogger and citizen of Minnesota, I get to groan about the Stars doing something to help themselves.