Will center Brad Richards, the squad’s leading scorer the past two years, re-sign with the Stars or go elsewhere once he becomes an unrestricted free agent on July 1?
Unfortunately, the answer is closely linked to the uncertainty surrounding the club’s ownership situation, and that is unlikely to be resolved by the time his current deal expires.
“I don’t really know yet,” said Richards, who set a career-high with 28 goals while adding 49 assists for 77 points, ranking 10th overall in the NHL despite missing 10 games with concussion-like symptoms in late February/early March. “I’ll talk with my family and start figuring it out. I have lots of time, there’s no deadline until July, so there’s lots of time to sit there and ponder.”
Some negotiating between Dallas General Manager Joe Nieuwendyk and the Richards camp did take place at times during the season, but nothing will be resolved until the Stars have a new, stable ownership group in place - not because the Stars don’t have the money to allocate to him, but because Richards is reluctant to invest in a long-term deal with a franchise in flux.
“We had discussions with Brad right up until the trade deadline and after it, but I think things got quiet, obviously, with him trying to get back playing (after his injury),” Nieuwendyk revealed. “Our position hasn’t changed. We like Brad and when I look at the three years of work he’s done for the Dallas Stars, it’s pretty impressive. He’s an important player on our team and our position hasn’t changed at all. Obviously, it has to make sense for Brad but it also has to make sense for us as well going forward.”
“There’s been a little chatter, but it always came back to, if I was going to sign and there was no ownership, I’d be a little hesitant,” admitted the 31-year-old Richards, who counted $7.8 million towards the salary cap. “And there might not be ownership by the time I have to make a decision, but right now, I’m in no rush. There’s nothing that’s pressing me, I’m going to see what happens. If there is no change, it doesn’t mean that I’m leaving, but I’ll have to make a different type of decision at that time. Right now, it doesn’t look like it will be in place, but there’s no deadline until July, so I can sit back and we’ll wait and see.”
While there were some reports recently that Vancouver-based businessman Tom Gaglardi was ready to enter into an exclusive month-long negotiating period with the lenders that now control the club, no new information has been made public and the prospect of a new ownership group taking over still seems a ways off.
But while Richards doesn’t feel comfortable right now committing to staying in Dallas, there’s no question that he loves it here. He really enjoys the city, loves his teammates, has a good relationship with club management - it’s simply the uncertainty surrounding the ownership that has him reluctant to return under the current circumstances.
“The room, it was a great bunch of guys, it’s as close a room as I’ve ever played with,” said Richards, who captured the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP while helping Tampa Bay win the 2004 Stanley Cup. “We were written off many times and we just kept together in here. A lot of good friendships. It’s going in the right direction, that’s for sure. It was a fun group.”
Part of the reason the issue of franchise stability is so important to Richards is because of what he experienced at his previous home in Tampa Bay.
After the Lightning won the Cup in 2004, the next season was lost due to the lockout and when play resumed, a new restrictive salary cap was in place, which Tampa did not manage very well. As the team struggled on the ice, a disruptive ownership change occurred and many key components of the Cup-winning squad were traded away to shed salary, which ultimately included Richards, who was dealt to Dallas Feb. 26, 2008.
All in all, it was not a pleasant environment to be a part of, and one that led to several losing seasons - factors that contributed to Richards’ willingness to waive his no-trade clause to join the Stars.
“We blew up our team, and two years later, there’s like two guys left on that team from the Stanley Cup team three years after we win it,” noted Richards, who led all Dallas forwards in ice time this season, averaging 21:43 per game. “That’s not what, say a Detroit or a team like that has to go through. They win and they keep building and they stay with their core, they try to win more. I’m just talking about Tampa, I’m not saying that’s happening here, but it just makes everything smoother.”
With the exception of Phoenix the past two seasons, in almost every other scenario a stable, secure ownership situation is a significant factor when a team maximizes its potential to become an elite contender on a yearly basis. It allows a franchise to spend to the salary cap, it promotes management continuity and an all-around professional atmosphere.
“You look around the league, the teams that are consistently winning, it starts at the top,” said Richards, who was originally the Lightning’s second-round selection (64th overall) in the 1998 NHL Entry Draft. “It’s always that way. It makes things clearer for a guy like Joe, what he’s doing. How many times have we talked about ownership this year? There’s a lot of teams you never talk about it, you don’t have to talk about it, just go play hockey and things are always taken care of. And you’re competing against teams that are going to spend $63 million next year (the likely cap limit). Teams that are in the playoffs now, that are Cup contenders, they’re going to be just as good next year or better and we’ve got to compete with that and that starts with ownership. That’s why it’s on my mind and that’s why I ask my questions.”
While he did once again admirably fill the role of offensive catalyst in 2010-11, clearly Richards’ head injury, coming in the final seconds of a 2-1 loss to Columbus on Feb. 13, soured what had been a fabulous season. After missing 10 games, during which the Stars went 5-4-1, Richards returned March 9 and took several games to regain his form and look like the dominant player he was before the injury.
After just six points (one goal, five assists) in the first 10 games following his return to the lineup, a span in which Dallas stumbled to a 2-4-4 record, Richards completed the regular season with three goals and eight points in the final six games, as the Stars reeled off four straight wins before dropping their last contest April 10 in Minnesota to miss the playoffs.
“My head, coming back and trying to get back in the intensity and the battle, it was tough,” the 6-foot, 195-pound Richards admitted. “In the back of your mind, you’re thinking, ‘If you get hit again, you’ll have another one and that will be two in one year.’ A lot of things go through your head. It’s the sport we play, so there’s no excuses, but it wasn’t ideal, even when I did come back. I wish it hadn’t happened, I wish I was there to give what I had at the start of the year.”
Still, there’s no question that his teammates are eager to have Richards back, especially his usual left winger, Loui Eriksson
, whose career has blossomed over the past three seasons skating alongside him on the Stars’ top line.
“Of course, we’ve been playing together since he got here,” said Eriksson, who has improved his point total in each of his five NHL seasons, topping off at a career-high 73 this past year. “He’s been helping me a lot and it’s always been nice playing with him, we find each other real well out there, so he’s a really good player to play with. We haven’t really talked too much about (his situation). We’ll see what happens here in the summer.”
The other leaders in the Stars’ dressing room are also crossing their fingers that Richards stays, but no one holds an iota of resentment towards the offensive wizard because of his stance.
“We’re going to spend a lot of time together, I’ll maybe throw him a few golf matches to keep him happy, but I know he loves the city,” said captain Brenden Morrow
. “He loves his team, he loves his teammates, I think he just wants some security and he wants to know the franchise is stable and he has every right to. He’s in a position where I think he wants to have an owner he feels is willing to spend to have a competitive team and if he doesn’t see that situation here, he’s probably going to move on.”
“He’s such a valuable part of our team, let’s be honest here,” acknowledged agitating forward Steve Ott
. “He’s our leading scorer. You know what he brings to the table, he’s a guy that’s extremely hard to replace. If he does go, it’s going to leave an awfully big hole. I don’t know our situation, but hopefully we find a way to keep Richie around. He’s a great veteran leader on this team as well, a lot of guys look up to him.”
So while at this point, it’s hard to predict just how this drama will turn out, there’s no question a quick resolution to the Stars’ ongoing ownership saga would provide a big boost to the effort to keep Richards in Dallas.
“I’ve had two good years the last two years, I’ve got my game back and I think the organization’s helped me with that,” said Richards, who fired a team-high 272 shots on goal, which tied for 14th in the league. “I’ve got my teammates, coaching staff, Joe - you want everything to work out, we’ll see if it does. That’s just part of the business we’re in.”