Brad Richards has performed at such a high level so consistently over the past season and a half that it’s tempting to take him for granted, but it really is a big deal that the Dallas Stars center has staked his claim to a spot among the NHL’s top 10 scorers and has refused to relinquish it.
After another important performance Sunday night, in which he scored a goal and added two assists to lead the Stars to a 4-2 comeback victory over the Blues in St. Louis, Richards tops the Stars in all offensive categories. His 18 goals and 27 assists each rank seventh in the league, while his total of 45 points puts him sixth overall, through 40 games.
This comes after he led the club and finished seventh in the league with 91 points last year, matching his career-high and representing the highest point total by a Star since Mike Modano recorded 93 in 1993-94, the team’s first in Dallas.
Make no mistake, Richards is nothing less than the Stars’ offensive catalyst. Most nights, anchoring the Stars’ top line alongside usual wingers Loui Eriksson
and James Neal, as Richards goes, so go the Stars.
“I just try to be consistent,” said the 30-year-old Richards, now in his 10th NHL season and third full year in Dallas. “It’s tough to do it over the 82-game season. Right now, it’s good we’re helping the team and Loui’s right there with me. We’re going to keep trying, keep pushing, that’s what we’re here to do. Wherever we are (in the scoring race), it’ll all settle itself out, but if we can stay consistent and keep helping the team get wins, that’s what we’re here to do.”
“He’s just being himself, he’s still doing all the same things he’s done the last few years,” noted defenseman Stephane Robidas
. “Since he broke into the league, he’s always been known as an elite player offensively, and he’s just been doing that. He’s been scoring big goals at key times and making big plays at key times and I think there’s a reason why he’s in the top 10 almost every year.”
While he is pretty much always clicking, Richards has been on a bit of a hot streak lately, especially in the goal-scoring department. Over the last nine games, Richards has contributed six goals (and four assists for 10 points) to surge into the club lead with 18. In less than half a season, he has nearly matched the 24 goals he totaled all of last year, and is closing in on his career high of 26 set in 2003-04 with Tampa Bay.
Known primarily as a set-up man, expanding on his goal-scoring dimension has made Richards and his linemates even more dangerous this season.
“I’ve put a little more emphasis on shooting more, the last two years, that’s part of it,” acknowledged the 6-foot, 195-pound Richards, who leads the Stars and ranks 10th in the league with 154 shots on goal. “I think also, Loui’s being looked at a lot more for scoring, and it’s harder to find him and I think that translates to him finding me a lot more. I feel like I’m getting a lot more chances this year because I think teams scout other teams, they know that’s what I’m doing, that I’m looking for him. He’s helped out a lot and we’re trying to help each other out that way, trying to be more all-around, not just one-dimensional.”
“It’s always nice to have him on your line, we’ve been playing together the last two years and he’s just a great player out there,” adds Eriksson, who sits just behind Richards with 16 goals and has led the squad in each of the past two seasons with 29 and 36, respectively. “He always finds some space to make some plays, he’s got (18) goals already this year and he’s been really important for us.”
While Richards is on pace to barely surpass his shot total of 284 from last season, which also led Dallas and left him 10th in the NHL, Stars coach Marc Crawford believes that Richards is just taking advantage of how the opposing defenses are playing him and his linemates.
“I think he’s always probably shot around the same level he’s shooting now,” Crawford said. “Maybe you could attribute the fact that he’s got more goals to the fact that he’s shot slightly more. I think he’s just a smart, intelligent guy and when he sees opportunities, he makes the right decision and a lot of those decisions this year have been to shoot. Defenses are so good now, it’s what they give you. People know what your go-to stuff is, and you have to be able to make the read and take what they’re giving you.”
“I think he’s been trying to shoot a little bit more,” Eriksson added. “That’s what you need to do if you want to score goals and he’s finding ways to score goals right now. It’s always nice to have that feeling. He’s still really good at giving me some passes out there, too, so you have to be open every time you’re with him and he always finds you. He’s got really good vision.”
Clearly, Richards’ special on-ice rapport with Eriksson has been a big part of both of their success over the last several seasons. In fact, after posting a career-high 71 points last year, Eriksson has been hovering among the league’s top 15 in scoring himself for much of the last month or so, sitting ninth through Monday night with 42 points in 40 games.
“We’ve become pretty close friends,” Richards said of his Swedish sidekick who has been at his left wing pretty much since Richards arrived in the Feb. 26, 2008 trade with Tampa. “We talk a lot about what we’re doing out there and it’s just like anything - you get familiar with people and it’s just nice to have that familiarity. There’s not many nights he takes off, so I know what to expect out of him and he’s gotten a lot better and he’s helped me out a lot.”
“They have a very good chemistry,” added Robidas. “Those two are really smart players, they read off each other real well and they do the little things right. They’re very creative offensively and they’re very tough to defend, so it’s good to have those two guys.”
In addition to his duties as the first-line center, Richards also quarterbacks the Stars’ power play unit, playing the point and dictating its tempo. He often spends the entire two minutes on the ice, logging an average of 5:24 of ice time per game on the PP, which ranks third in the entire NHL (behind Pittsburgh stars Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby and just ahead of Washington’s Alex Ovechkin and Mike Green) and a full 1:34 more than the next-highest Star, Mike Ribeiro
. Overall, Richards has averaged 21:25 of ice time per contest, third on the club overall and tops among forwards.
He leads the club and sits tied for ninth in the league with 18 power play points (five goals, 13 assists) and has helped the unit convert at a 22.7 percent clip in home games, ranking sixth in the NHL, while posting a 17.1 percent efficiency rating overall, for 17th in the league.
“Brad has been exceptional for us,” Crawford said. “He’s obviously very good on the power play and his ability to shoot from the point is one of the things that makes him so effective as a forward from the point position. There’s not a lot of guys who have that ability to do it, because it is intimidating when you’re playing against forwards who skate well and have some offensive ability on the penalty kill, but he doesn’t get intimidated, he’s actually a pretty good defender. He makes such good decisions and he’s got great vision, so those things together, vision combined with skating ability and competitiveness and his good shot - those are all the dimensions that you need to be a good power play quarterback. It’s great that you’ve got the whole package.”
Another key area that Richards has shone this season is defensively. After recording a sub-par -12 plus/minus rating last year that was third-worst on the squad, Richards has improved his play in his own zone. His +7 this year, which ranks fifth on the team and third among forwards behind Eriksson and Neal, exemplifies that he and his line has been able to win the head-to-head matchup with the opposing team’s top line most of the time. Coming out ahead in that 5-on-5 battle most nights has been crucial to the Stars’ overall success this year that has them atop the Pacific Division and third in the Western Conference.
And while the cloud of his uncertain future contract status hangs over the franchise a bit, Richards has demonstrated an impressive ability to push that aside - it will be resolved later, after all - and continue to focus on providing offensive leadership for the Stars right now.
“Brad Richards is an important player and he’s having a terrific season for us,” General Manager Joe Nieuwendyk said. “I think he’s a lot responsible for the push in James Neal and the push in Loui Eriksson
- those guys have great chemistry together, so there’s no question he’s an important player for us.”
“He’s really a good all-around player, he’s a fun guy to play with,” Eriksson added. “You always know where he is. He’s a good passing player and he can score, too, so it’s always good to play with him.”
And he just keeps putting points on the board.