In a lot of ways, the 2009-10 season was an outstanding year for Brad Richards.
The 30-year-old Dallas Stars center led the squad in scoring, matching his career high with 91 points, ranking seventh in the entire NHL, notching 24 goals and 67 assists, which was good for fourth in the league.
Richards' point total was just two shy of Mike Modano's Dallas record set in the club's first season in Texas in 1993-94 and his assist total, proving his worth as one of the NHL's elite set-up men, was the most since Neal Broten set the franchise mark of 76 back in the Minnesota days in 1985-86. Plus, with just 14 penalty minutes, Richards was also a finalist for the Lady Byng Trophy for sportsmanship and gentlemanly play, an award he won in 2004.
"I certainly enjoyed what he did offensively for us last year, I think he really recaptured his offensive prowess in the league and he was terrific in that aspect," Stars coach Marc Crawford said. "On the power play, he was a focal point to our attack and we'll look for much of the same next year."
After an injury-plagued 2008-09, the fact that Richards managed to remain relatively healthy all year played a key role in him regaining the dominant form that helped him win the 2004 Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP, when he led Tampa Bay to the Stanley Cup.
Unfortunately, the Stars missed the playoffs for the second consecutive year, and for a guy that thrives in the post-season and has a history of elevating his level of play when the stakes get higher, that disappointment overshadowed all the positives.
"It's tough, playoffs are the best part about our game," said Richards, who recorded three goals and 15 points in 18 post-season contests in 2008 as Dallas advanced to the Western Conference Finals. "It's a long season sometimes, but the playoffs are a clean slate, 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 still the best time of year to play hockey, and it bites (to miss out). It's not fun at all. Hopefully we're there next year, because it's been two years in a row and that's not good enough, for sure."
As the club's offensive catalyst, Richards was also a crucial component of the Stars' power play unit. Usually lining up at the point, Richards often spent the entire two minutes on the ice, logging an average of 5:04 of ice time per game on the PP, which was fourth in the entire NHL and a full 1:32 more than the next-highest Star, Mike Ribeiro
. Overall, Richards averaged 20:51 of ice time per contest, third on the club and tops among forwards.
Dallas finished last season with an 18.6 percent conversion rate on the man-advantage, ranking 12th in the league. Richards was instrumental to that success, contributing a Stars-best 13 power play goals, tied for sixth in the NHL, 27 PP assists, which was tied for second in the league, and 40 power play points, ranking second.
"He has been the quarterback on the power play for us, and when you got a guy that has that type of poise and patience, that decision-making is so necessary on the power play," Stars coach Marc Crawford said of Richards. "He's got to bring the puck up - he's like a point guard (in basketball), he's remarkable at that. He controls the puck from the point and he's got a good enough shot that he can beat people from that point position. He's very creative, he's got lots of stamina, he enjoys it, he wants that responsibility, so all the attributes you'd like for people to have on the power play, he's got them and he's had them throughout his career and they keep getting more refined."
At even strength, the crafty 6-foot-0, 196-pound Richards anchored the squad's top offensive trio, developing outstanding chemistry with up-and-coming wingers Loui Eriksson
and James Neal, a combination that will undoubtedly be together again in 2010-11.
Having already established a strong connection with Eriksson almost from the time he arrived in town from Tampa Bay in the trade-deadline deal on Feb. 26, 2008, Richards continues to marvel at the quiet consistency his Swedish linemate displays on a regular basis.
"I say it all the time - I think he's one of the more underrated players in the league," Richards said of Eriksson. "I get to see him every night and he's kind of my security blanket every night. I know there's not many games he takes off, if any. If he is struggling, he can hide it better than anybody. I'm very fortunate I've had him on my line the last two years and right from the first playoff round that we played together, it worked. That's just the way it is. Who knows why? I never knew him. He didn't even get my name right when I got traded here, but for some reason it still works. He's a great player. I think there's a lot more out of him that you'll see in the next few years."
Alongside Richards the past two seasons, Eriksson has blossomed offensively, totaling team-high totals of 36 and 29 goals, respectively, while second-year man Neal collected 27 goals in his first stint on the other wing, so there's no question Richards had been a major influence in accelerating their progress.
"I don't want to put one guy on a pedestal, but Brad Richards is an important player and he had a terrific season for us," Dallas 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 and the impact he has with the power play, too, so there's no question he's an important player for us."
One of the keys to Richards' success last season was his ability to stay out of the trainer's room, especially after the difficult 2008-09 he endured, sitting out 25 of the final 26 games of the year with two separate fractures.
"It was very important," said Richards, who was originally selected by the Lightning in the second round (64th overall) of the 1998 NHL Entry Draft. "I think I only missed two games, and that kind of bothers me a little bit - 82 is always nice to play, but I got 80 in after a pretty rough year injury-wise. It was the first year I went through injuries like that and missed games. To come back and get more games played, get a fuller season, and get comfortable, it was big for my mind. The playoff run was fun when I got traded here, but last year wasn't too much fun, so it was good to get a good year living in the city, and get to know the organization more and everything around the organization, and play a lot more games than I did the year before."
While he did have to undergo arthroscopic surgery following the season to repair torn labrum in his hip, Richards is back to his training regimen and will be ready for September's training camp.
The only real sore spot for Richards last year was his somewhat surprising -12 plus/minus figure, which was third-worst on the squad. Crawford believes that Richards needs to step up his defensive performance next year to truly be considered among the league's elite offensive stars.
"We think that defensively is where Brad can really make an improvement," Crawford said. "He wants to be a plus player, we want to be able to play him against anybody. A lot of teams will use the strategy now of trying to match up their top offensive players against our top offensive players, and we have to win that matchup, so there's a real onus on Brad to make sure that he's a leader in that domain when teams do that."
As Richards enters the final year of a contract that will count $7.8 million against the Stars' salary cap, both he and club management have expressed a desire to sign an extension before 2010-11 starts, although that hasn't occurred yet.
"I know that (Stars assistant GM Frank Provenzano) will be having discussions with his agent and we'll see where it goes," Nieuwendyk said. "Obviously, he's coming off a big number and it's probably going to remain at a fairly significant number. So we just have to determine if we're kind of in the same hemisphere as far as contract and then move forward accordingly. The good thing is we have him under contract for another year. He's a terrific player for us. He's a guy we'd like to go forward with obviously."
"I think ideally, you'd like to have something done, because it gets different if you're not signed and you get into that last year," Richards acknowledged, citing possible distractions such as trade rumors and the uncertainty unrestricted free agents-to-be face. "Different ideas get put into your head and it's just not the same. I'll be ready to play, it's not going to change me. I'm not going to whine in the corner if I don't have a contract extension next year, I'm going to come and play and I still want to improve on what I did this year and I think I got some more things to work on and I want to take care of that this summer and just focus on having another good year."
Clearly, despite finalizing a deal yet, which is most likely due more to the organization's unsettled ownership situation than anything else, the Stars value his presence a great deal. They even scheduled the first three days of training camp (September 18-20) to take place near Richards' hometown in the small Canadian province of Prince Edward Island. Richards, who is from Murray Harbor and is one of just a handful of PEI products to reach the NHL, is like a hero there and for the Stars to spend time there is a huge event.
From that exciting beginning, Richards hopes that the upcoming season will be another big one for him personally, but even more importantly, one in which the club's overall fortunes are even better. He's confident it will.
"We got a lot of young players, I have a great winger in Loui and whether it's James (on the other side) or whoever, so I think we're going in the right direction," said Richards. "I think this team is not far away. If we can get the right mix of players with our young guys, we got a great captain, and we can do some good things."