Not only did the former Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe Trophy winner miss out on the chance to perform in the playoffs for the first time since 2001-02, he also suffered back-to-back long-term injuries that just might have been the final straw that broke the Stars’ backs this year.
With the club having dug its way out of an early hole by scratching and clawing for every point without captain Brenden Morrow
, power play quarterback Sergei Zubov and several other players with medium-length injuries here and there, Richards fractured his right wrist Feb. 16 in Columbus, providing the team one more bit of adversity to battle through.
One week later, the squad lost valuable utility forward Toby Petersen
with a broken foot. And perhaps the crushing blow that Dallas simply could not overcome occurred on March 21. Following an impressively quick recovery time during which he missed just 15 games, Richards triumphantly returned to the lineup at San Jose, only to sustain a fracture in the other hand in the third period, knocking him out for the remainder of the year.
That just seemed to epitomize the Stars’ struggles this season.
“I can’t really explain it,” Richards said of his ridiculous run of bad luck. “(I was) pretty much speechless for a while and it’s been a depressing month. I had a lot of thoughts going into that, and pushing myself to get ready to come back, and I was excited and wanted to be there for the final push and then, it’s pretty much… It’s all relative, life goes on, but when you want to be out there, it’s tough.”
At that point, the club was already starting to drop in the Western Conference standings, staggering through a 5-10-1 swoon that saw them tumble from sixth place when Richards first got hurt to 12th (just three points back of eighth). The struggle just got tougher from there, as they finished the season 3-4-3 from that point on, falling out of the intense playoff race and winding up eight points out in 12th.
While his rehabilitation process lost its urgency when the Stars were eliminated from post-season contention, Richards figured he would have been close to returning to the ice again by now if Dallas was still playing, as they were last spring when they advanced to the Western Conference Finals.
“(It’s coming along) a little slower than I thought,” Richards said of his hand injury just after the regular season ended in mid-April. “It’s a little different when you’re not rushing to get back in the lineup, I think, too, so I’ll just take my time, get everything healthy and hopefully by the middle of May, I’ll be ready to start training for next season.”
For a guy like Richards who thrives on playoff pressure and intensity, missing the post-season was a bitter pill to swallow, even if he wouldn’t have been able to play anyway.
“For me, it’s been a tough couple of months here,” admitted Richards, who was acquired from Tampa Bay in a trade-deadline blockbuster deal on Feb. 26, 2008. “In my mind, it’s been over for a while. It’s not fun, seeing all the playoff matchups and schedule come out. You’re missing out on the best part of the year. It’s tough.”
Before his season ended so abruptly, Richards was playing well, ranking second on the squad in scoring with 48 points in 55 games when he first broke his wrist in Columbus, a game in which he scored his 16th goal of the year. Regardless, he still ended up third on the club in points and second with 32 assists, while averaging 20:28 of ice time per contest.
One of his primary responsibilities as the second-line center behind Mike Ribeiro
was teaming up with third-year sniper Loui Eriksson
, who blossomed this year with a club-high 36 goals, many off Richards assists. They formed a dangerous partnership and the prospect of having them back together next year bodes well for Dallas.
“It was a lot of fun,” Richards said of playing with Eriksson. “I love his attitude, he’s a great human being and he’s quiet. He just goes about his job, you never hear him complaining about anything. I felt more and more comfortable the second half of the season playing with him, so I’m very excited to have someone coming in next year that I have chemistry with. I’m going to have a really good off-season training and I’m going to come in ready to go and I couldn’t be happier knowing I’m going to be playing with him.”
“He’s really a good all-around player, he’s a fun guy to play with,” Eriksson said of Richards. “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.”
Another area that Richards had a major impact on was the club’s power play. One of the key reasons the Stars sank in the standings after Richards left the lineup was because of the power play unit’s inability to come up with the big goal, as they struggled to a woeful 11.7 percent conversion rate (13-for-111) over the season’s final 25 games without him. More than anything, it demonstrated what a key component Richards, who excelled manning the point with the man-advantage, has become in just over one year in Dallas.
“I think in my own mind, I know what I can bring to the team,” noted Richards, who recorded an NHL-record seven game-winning goals during the 2004 playoffs with Tampa Bay en route to the Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe Trophy as post-season MVP. “I try to be an important player and try to play a role that helps this team every night. Watching has kind of put things into perspective for me. I’ve never really had, how to call it, an ‘opportunity’ to watch from above, but it’s definitely made things a little different in my eyes, and it’s going to make me a better player, I think, and a lot hungrier coming into the season.”
“When you’re missing key parts (it can be difficult), because there’s certain places your power play revolves around,” Tippett said. “Like Richards is a guy that the power play revolves around him, Zubie would be a guy that the power play revolves around, so you’re looking for other people to step in and fill those holes and it’s been a struggle finding consistency in people doing that.”
Richards also indicated how much he admired the gritty effort put forth by his teammates in his absence, as the Stars battled to stay in the race under very trying circumstances. Even though they ultimately did not achieve their objective, he was pleased to be part of a club that battled to the finish no matter who was on the ice.
“We fought, I’m pretty proud of how they fought all year with all this adversity,” said Richards, the Lightning’s second-round choice (64th overall) in the 1998 Entry Draft. “It was probably the most messed-up year I’ve ever been around a team, with all the surrounding stuff going on and injuries. I’ve never been part of something like that. To hang in there to the last two weeks shows a lot about the character of the team.”
And based on the disappointing, anti-climactic way this season ended for him, Richards is confident that he will be extremely eager to get back at it full force next September for training camp. With a team full of guys anxious to redeem themselves after a longer-than-usual summer, Richards believes the Stars will jump out of the starting gates fast in 2009-10.
“Obviously, I think our start will be a lot better, our leadership knows that now,” Richards said, looking back on the club’s sub-par first two months this year that saw them spend a lot of time in the Western Conference basement. “We’re not going to be messing around now, I think there’s going to be a real business-like attitude right at September 1st, even before. I think Brenden is going to be really anxious to get going. He’s going to be in top-notch shape, that’s going to pull a lot of people along. I’m going to be very excited to get going, so I think our core group, with Otter playing the minutes he did and showing what he can do and Loui leading the way, coming into his own, I think we got a lot of guys that are going to be very excited to build on last season or get back into it, in my case.
“It’s a good team.”