For center Brad Richards and left winger Loui Eriksson
, the trip to All-Star Weekend will be the first for each of them, and a well-deserved honor for an outstanding performance so far this season. The duo, who make up two-thirds of the Stars’ top line, both rank among the NHL’s top 12 scorers and have clearly established themselves as elite players while leading the Stars’ attack all year.
Following the Stars’ 3-1 win over the Edmonton Oilers Wednesday night, the two offensive catalysts can travel to North Carolina feeling good about where their club is after 50 games - 30-15-5 and atop the Pacific Division, while riding an 8-2-1 streak since New Year’s.
“It’s exciting, it’s getting closer now, so obviously, it’s a little more on your mind,” Richards said of the league festivities. “I’m sure (Thursday) when I wake up and start getting packed and getting ready to go, I can’t wait. It’s going to be fun.”
“It’s getting closer and it’s going to be awesome,” added Eriksson. “I remember when I was a kid, I watched all those (All-Star) games and it’s going to be pretty cool to be a part of it. It’s a big thing as a kid watching the skills competition, too. Both me and Richie are looking forward to going there and just have some fun.”
There’s no question that each has thoroughly earned the honor, and not just because they are both on pace for career-highs in points. Yes, Richards leads the club in scoring, having posted 57 points (20 goals, 37 assists), ranking him sixth in the entire NHL in points and fourth in assists, while Eriksson sits 11th in the league with 49 points (17 goals, 32 assists), but the two have also been strong defensively, too. Eriksson leads the team with a stellar + 15 plus/minus rating, while Richards is a + 7.
“It’s a big accomplishment for them two,” noted the top line’s third member, right winger James Neal. “Over the last couple of years, especially for Loui, he’s built himself into a great player around the league. It’s an honor for him to be able to represent our team and our line, too, I guess, in the All-Star Game. And for Brad, he’s more than deserving. It’s obviously his first All-Star Game - it’s hard to believe it’s his first one after the numbers he’s put up (throughout his career). It’s well-deserved for both of them and I’m sure they’ll have a good showing.”
“Definitely, they both are guys that have had excellent seasons,” Stars coach Marc Crawford said. “Loui’s a guy that’s emerged the last couple of years, he had 36 goals two years ago, last year he was almost a point-a-game guy, and he’s just continued on. He’s getting stronger, he’s getting more comfortable with how the league is. I think he’s recognizing now that he’s a good player and people know that he’s a good player. So he’s adjusted to playing against the number one defense pairings and all the things that come with people in the league knowing that you’re a good player.
“I think he’s been aided greatly by playing with Brad Richards. Brad is a guy that shares his knowledge and is very communicative with Loui. They’re talking all the time about what they see on the ice and how they can take advantage of people when they’re out there, and I think that can never be underestimated. I think you learn best, or at least it’s always been the case since I’ve been in the league, when you learn from veteran players. Loui has a great one in Brad to guide him.”
It’s certainly fitting that the two are going together, because their outstanding chemistry on the ice has undoubtedly helped each other rise to new heights. For the 25-year-old Eriksson, his development from young prospect into a bona-fide offensive star has coincided with his partnership alongside Richards, who arrived in a trade with Tampa Bay in Feb. 2008.
“It’s great (to be going together),” said the 30-year-old Richards, in the midst of his 10th NHL season. I’m very fortunate to be beside him here the last few years and to become good friends with him, so I’m very happy for him, I’m very proud of him and how he’s become one of the best players in the league here in the last few years. It’s fun to watch and it’s neat that I can be part of it with him.”
With the illustrious career that Richards has already put together to this point, it’s almost a travesty, as Neal noted, that this will be his first All-Star appearance. Of course, there wasn’t an All-Star Game in 2005-06 or last season due to the Olympics, but still, for a guy that has accomplished all that he has, it’s tough to believe. Despite having skated for Team Canada in the 2004 World Cup and the 2006 Olympics, as well as leading Tampa to the 2004 Stanley Cup with an NHL record with seven game-winning goals, winning the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP, Richards doesn’t take it as a slight that he’s just now making his All-Star debut.
“That’s just the way it goes,” Richards shrugged. “I’ve been fortunate enough to play some other cool things along the way, so I’m not complaining. When I did have a good start, they were Olympic years or they weren’t good enough starts to beat out Marty (St. Louis) or Vinny (Lecavalier) when I was playing with Tampa. So this is going to be right up there - it’s not like the Olympics or World Cup team, but similar to that where you get to see all these great players and hang out with them for the weekend.”
As for Eriksson, his evolution into an elite player since becoming Richards’ linemate in the 2008 playoffs has been one of the most significant developments in the Stars’ recent history. When he was forced to sit out the Stars’ 7-4 loss in Calgary last Friday night due to the flu, Eriksson’s consecutive games played streak ended at 263, a span which pretty much encapsulates his growth from a guy just trying to stay in the lineup who sat out as a healthy scratch back in Dec. 2007 to the key cog he is now.
“It’s been going real well the last three years,” said Eriksson, who blossomed with 36 goals and 63 points in 2008-09 and followed it up with 29 goals and 71 points last year. “I’m playing with a lot of confidence out there and getting a lot of ice time, too - that always helps your confidence, when you get to play a lot and on the power play and on penalty killing. It’s just fun right now, especially when we’ve been winning, too, like we’ve been doing this season.”
“It’s amazing, the things that guy’s done over the last few years is pretty remarkable,” added defenseman Nicklas Grossman, who has followed a similar career trajectory since the two left their native Sweden to skate for AHL Iowa back in 2005-06. “He’s kind of been flying under the radar, but when you look at his stats and the consecutive games he played without missing one until last week, that’s pretty impressive, too. He’s maybe not a big vocal guy to get a lot of notice, but he’s been one of our top scorers for the last three years. I’m just real happy for him going there and he’s got to be real excited going there with Brad and I hope he’ll have a good time and have fun.”
Of course, unlike past seasons, there’s no guarantee this time that the teammates will end up on the same All-Star squad. With the new format instituted this season, there will be a ‘fantasy draft’ Friday night to determine the rosters of each team for Sunday’s game. Carolina’s Eric Staal and Detroit’s Nicklas Lidstrom are the club captains that will choose the players, although Richards believes he has an inside track to end up on Team Lidstrom, since his old linemate from Tampa Bay has been named as one of Lidstrom’s assistant captains.
“I’ve talked to my buddy Marty St. Louis, who’s an assistant captain, I’ve already got my plug in for myself and we’ll see what happens,” Richards laughed. “It’ll make Friday a little different with the draft coming up - you don’t know what team you’re on, you don’t know who you’ll play with, so it’s kind of fun that way. It could happen (where Loui’s on the other team), obviously a 50-50 chance. I can play with Loui every day here, so it won’t be a huge deal. But it would be cool to be on the same team, so we can do everything together and be around each other, keep each other company.”
“We’ll see on Friday night how the draft will be, so hopefully we’ll be playing on the same team,” said Eriksson, who also has a connection to Lidstrom as the two were each key members of Team Sweden in last year’s Winter Olympics. “You never know, we may play against each other and that would be pretty fun, too, so it’s going to be awesome.”
With the Skills Competition taking place Saturday, neither player was sure which event he would compete in and had no specific preferences, although Richards was pretty sure he didn’t want to be in the ‘fastest skater’ competition.
“I don’t know, I haven’t been told what I’m doing, hopefully something where I’m not moving around much, like shooting or passing to someone,” said Richards. “That would be nice and simple for me.”
“I haven’t really thought about that,” said Eriksson. “We’ll see what I’ll do when we get there, but it’s going to be fun, it doesn’t really matter what I do. Maybe the skating part is a little tougher, but we’ll see.”
So while Richards and Eriksson get to enjoy the spotlight alongside the league’s best players over the weekend, the rest of the Stars will be watching - but probably happy they weren’t accompanying them.
“We’re proud of our two guys, Richie and Loui, we want to see them do well,” said captain Brenden Morrow
. “But it’s a physical game and we’ve all got some bumps and bruises and five days off is going to be good.”
Once all the fun is over, it will be back to work in Dallas with a practice scheduled for Monday before the Stars’ next game Tuesday against Vancouver at the American Airlines Center, something Eriksson is already looking ahead to.
“We’re just going to try to keep it going here, work real hard and make it to the playoffs,” said Eriksson. “I think the whole team is trying to work as hard as we can because we haven’t been there in a while, so everyone is ready for it.”