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Richards Earns Leading Role With Stars

by Ken Sins / Dallas Stars

Brad Richards continues his rise up the Stars' hierarchy.

Goaltender Marty Turco won't be re-signed, and 1999 Stanley Cup heroes Mike Modano and Jere Lehtinen are contemplating retirement. Thus, Richards and captain Brenden Morrow must be considered the franchise's most prominent faces.

Richards is coming off a 91-point season, tops on the team and seventh in the league. His 67 assists placed him fourth in the NHL, his 27 power-play helpers tied him for second in the league, and his 40 points with the man advantage were second.

The most obvious blemish on his stat line was a minus-12 rating, but he was hardly alone on the negative side of the team's plus-minus ledger.  

Dallas' strength is at center, where Richards, rookie Jamie Benn, Mike Ribeiro and Tom Wandell are penciled in for next season.

That's something to build around, starting with Richards, who for the majority of the season centered for James Neal (27 goals) and Loui Eriksson (29) on the Stars' top line.

"I don't want to put one player on a pedestal, but I think (Richards was) responsible for a lot of the push in Loui and James Neal,'' general manager Joe Nieuwendyk said. "Those guys have real good chemistry together, plus the impact (Richards) has on the power play. So there's no question he's an important player for us.''

Richards re-established his credentials after an injury-plagued 2008-09, his first full season with the Stars. He had to sit out 25 games, 15 due to a broken right wrist and 10 more with a broken left hand.

Being healthy for all but two games in 2009-2010 was a plus for Richards.

"It was very important,'' Richards said. "I missed two games, which bothers me a little bit because 82 is nice. But I got 80 after a pretty rough year injury-wise. It was the first season where I went through injuries like that, so to come back and get a full season and get comfortable, it was big for my mindset. It was good living in the city, getting to know the organization more, playing more games.''

Richards was on hand for the Stars' playoff ride at the close of the 2007-08 season. He was in on 12 regular-season games after being acquired in a trade with Tampa Bay, and then made the 18-game playoff run, contributing three goals and 12 assists.

That would be his last taste of playoff hockey, something which doesn't sit well with the 29-year-old native of Prince Edward Island.

The playoff drought plus the team's sale and the departure of some key players makes for a rather unsettling offseason for every Stars player.

"There's uncertainty for sure for numerous reasons,'' Richards said. "Ownership is a big part. With all that around us, and also not making the playoffs for two years, that's not going to be acceptable in management's mind and coaches' mind, so there's a lot of uncertainty around the locker room and the organization for the right reasons. We're not where we want to be two years in a row and that's got to change somehow.''

Richards has a Stanley Cup ring from 2004 when his first NHL team, the  Lightning, won the title. That's another reason why an empty postseason is especially unwelcome for Richards.

"The playoffs are the best part of our game,'' he said. "It's a long season, but with the playoffs it's a clean slate and it's so much fun. I was fortunate enough to win so I  know how much fun it can be. Even if you don't win the Stanley Cup, it's the best time to play hockey. So it's not fun at all to watch it. I'm still a fan, I'll watch a little, but when you're not involved, it's not fun.''

Richards will take a little time off to let his body heal, and then dive into the vigorous offseason training program that he follows each summer.

"It's tough right now for me to evaluate (his season) individually,'' Richards said. "That will come as the offseason goes on. It's tough when you're not where you want to be. Once I get into training and get set to do what I want to accomplish during the summer to do what I want to get better next year, I'll reflect on what I did this year.''

When they were together, Richards, Eriksson and Neal formed a potent line.

Richards on Eriksson: "He's one of the more underrated players in the league. He's kinda my security blanket. There's not many games he takes off, if any. When he's struggling, he can hide it better than others. I'm fortunate. I've had him on my line the last two years. It's worked from the start. There's a lot more out of him you'll see in the next few years.''

Richards on Neal: "He got off to a great start, but it was tough to keep it. He was on a great pace to start, but he probably knew it would be a little harder once the season wore on. That's the challenge for him…82 games is a lot different than playing 40 good ones. As the season wears on, how do you react to the schedule and all the travel, it's a learning process. He's young. He's a dangerous player out there. He still had 27 goals. Hopefully he learns from the season and we get more out of him next season.''

With longtime contributors about to move on, Richards will be counted on (along with Steve Ott) to help Morrow and alternate captain Stephane Robidas on the leadership front.

"I've been on different teams and the ones that were successful were very close,'' Richards said. "I'm not saying we weren't close, but there's a difference when you win. We've got work to do there. We've got a lot of young kids who are quiet, feeling their way and learning the league. So you can lead in different ways. Every year that goes by  (leadership) will get better.''

Richards is signed through the 2010-11 season, and there's been speculation that a new contract could be in the works.

"I haven't talked to (Nieuwendyk),'' Richard said. "I don't know what their plans are. Ideally, I'd like to get it done.  But it's not going to change how I play. I'm not going to whine in the corner if I don't have a contract extension. I'm going to come and play because I want to improve on what I did this year and I think I have more things to work on.''

Overall, Richards believes the Stars have a bright future, especially if a few pieces can be added.

"We've got a lot of young players,'' he said. "We're going in the right direction. This team isn't that far away, if we can get the right mix of players with our young guys. We've got a good captain. We can do some good things.''

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