-- Is it possible the free-agent signing of Brad Richards
was exactly what the New York Rangers
and Dallas Stars
The Rangers have been among the League's elite teams since October. In 27 games, they have 38 points, one fewer than East-leading Philadelphia. Richards has been the veteran rock the youthful Rangers coveted this summer, posting 11 goals and a team-best 14 assists after signing a nine-year, $60 million contract during the summer.
Contrary to popular opinion after Richards left Dallas for New York, the Stars have managed just fine without him. They lead the Pacific Division with 33 points in 28 games, and at 2.54 goals per game, aren't far off the 2.71 per game they averaged last season with Richards centering the top line, flanked by Loui Eriksson
and Jamie Benn
It is one thing for pundits to expect the Stars to take a step back, but captain Brenden Morrow
had his reservations after learning Richards had signed with the Rangers.
Center - NYR
GOALS: 11 | ASST: 14 | PTS: 25
SOG: 63 | +/-: -2
"I guess initially that's what you think, is if that line is going to struggle," Morrow told NHL.com as the Stars prepared to face the Rangers at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday. "They were kind of the catalysts who offensively drove our team. When you lose a top center like that, you start to be a little concerned.
"With losing Brad, Joe (Nieuwendyk, Stars GM) had some money to throw around. He did a real good job of spreading it out."
Nieuwendyk didn't have the ability to spend all the way to the salary cap, so he knew he couldn't simply sign one person to replace Richards. So he picked up seven people to replace Richards.
Nieuwendyk took some gambles and spent modestly, and it's paying off during the first half of the season. He signed free agents Sheldon Souray
, Michael Ryder
, Jake Dowell
, Adam Pardy
, Radek Dvorak
and Vernon Fiddler
, and added Eric Nystrom
in a trade with Minnesota
Ryder is third on the team with 9 goals; Souray has 13 points while playing the third-most minutes on the team after missing the last season and a half dealing with injuries and toiling in the AHL; Nystrom has 10 goals, one short of his career best, while Dvorak and Fiddler have brought veteran presence while chipping in some offense.
It also helps to have a goaltender like Kari Lehtonen
, who currently is out with a lower-body injury but has played Vezina-worthy hockey in his 19 starts.
"It takes probably two or three guys up front to do it offensively, because you're not going to replace the points with one guy, because there's only one guy in free agency with that kind of reputation," said coach Glen Gulutzan, another new addition. "So we did it with two or three forwards and we're doing things more by committee now than by individual guys. I think in the long run, it will pay off for us."
Perhaps the decision to hire the 40-year-old Gulutzan was the most important move of the summer for the Stars. He coached the team's AHL affiliate in Texas for two seasons, so he brought a familiarity with the franchise's young players and offered a stark contrast in coaching style to that of his predecessor, Marc Crawford
"The guys have responded real well to him," Morrow said. "He's kind of a players' coach. He's played the game and respects the guys. They're opposites. (Crawford) pushes hard, he's more vocal behind the bench once the game starts. Glen, he'll adjust systems in the middle of the game. But yelling and screaming, he doesn’t think it's going to do anything positive for our group. The guys appreciate that."
Richards isn't surprised that his former team is finding success without him.
"We were a good team last year," Richards said. "We could've been in the top five in the conference. That's how close it was. They have a lot of the same guys and added what they thought they needed. They've got great goaltending. It's not a surprise that they're right there."
In New York, Richards has been everything the Rangers hoped he would be.
Besides the offense, Richards has been setting an example with his work ethic. Coach John Tortorella refers to Richards as a "mental case" when it comes to his preparation, perhaps the highest compliment possible he could give.
"He is so focused in what he does as a hockey player that he does not want to be disturbed," said Tortorella, who coached Richards for seven seasons with the Tampa Bay Lightning
. "He doesn't want any interruptions within his life -- just getting ready for practice and for games. I've known this for a long time. I saw it when he was a young kid when he first broke in, that it was very important. This is one of the intangibles I talked about. He is a mental case because he just wants to get ready to get on the ice. This isn't just coming in the building, but his whole life. I have a tremendous amount of respect for an athlete that is that focused."
"It takes probably two or three guys up front to do it offensively, because you're not going to replace the points with one guy, because there's only one guy in free agency with that kind of reputation. So we did it with two or three forwards and we're doing things more by committee now than by individual guys. I think in the long run, it will pay off for us."
-- Glen Gulutzan, on replacing Richards
That doesn't mean Richards is closed-off or wants to be an outsider within the locker room. On the contrary, he's been mentoring 21-year-old defenseman Michael Del Zotto
on how to handle the rigors of professional hockey off the ice. Del Zotto had a 2010-11 season to forget – one that ended with a demotion to the minors as the Rangers made a postseason push.
This season, Del Zotto has been a force. Through 27 games, he has 2 goals and 12 assists along with a plus-15 rating. He attributes the work he's done with Richards, who played the same role in Dallas with a young James Neal
when they were teammates. Del Zotto and Neal can compare notes on Richards' mentoring program, as they live less than an hour apart in Ontario during the offseason.
"We (Del Zotto and Neal) don't live too far apart and we know each other, so I know he talks about Ritchie all the time and how much he thinks of him," said Del Zotto, who credits Richards for helping him stay on an even keel through the highs and lows of the season. "He's definitely great at the role of being a mentor and I think he enjoys it. We have a great time together. We're both enjoying it."
"That is one of the big reasons why he wanted to come here," Tortorella said. "He was mentored by some people when he was a young player. I think that it's really intriguing to him to try to help other people. This is where I've always said he respects the game, and respects the history of the game. He wants to give back. That is, in his mind, one of the biggest things he wants to do with this team."
Richards still is adjusting to life in the big city. He's acclimated himself well to New York, but he still has a soft spot in his heart for the people he left behind in Dallas.
"You still miss everybody and I talk to them as much as I can," Richards said. "I definitely miss those guys, for sure."
Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo