With a mostly familiar group returning for the Blackhawks next season, the signing of veteran center Brad Richards has earned extra attention the past couple months. It's for good reason, as he's arguably the biggest difference between the current team and the one that narrowly fell short of its third Stanley Cup Final appearance in five years.
Since agreeing to that bargain $2 million deal, everyone seems thrilled to have Richards around, but nobody knows what to expect. After all, it seems pretty reasonable to suggest that Richards will be an upgrade of sorts on Michal Handzus next season; the bigger question is how much, and whether that's enough.
While the end of Richards' time in New York was ugly, with scarce minutes on the fourth line turning fans against the former Conn Smythe winner and his bloated contract, that ignores his actual effectiveness. Recording 20 goals and 51 points in 82 games isn't up to Richards' old standards, but it's still pretty solid for a second- or third-line forward.
Compare those numbers to Handzus, who recorded four goals and 16 points in 59 games last season. Sure, he played five fewer minutes per game, but that 0.27 points per game figure is straight-up ugly. Richards, even with his decline, was at 0.62 last season, and is only a few years removed from averaging a point per contest. Further decline might occur for Richards, but it would take a massive collapse to reach Handzus-ian levels of mediocrity as a playmaker.
Richards also performed well according to advanced metrics, which is likely part of what appealed to the Blackhawks. His Fenwick and Corsi numbers were second among Rangers forwards last season, behind Rick Nash, and while he wasn't always playing against top lines, his movement on the depth chart meant he faced a wide variety of competition. So we're talking about a player who often does a strong job of driving possession, records solid numbers even in a down-year and has a Conn Smythe under his belt. For a No. 2 center, sounds good to me.
And equally important to Richards' value is his durability. He's missed just two games in the past four seasons, and has only missed more than 10 games in a season once. Injuries haven't been a major issue for Chicago the past couple years -- one of the benefits of being a younger team -- but the stability provided by Richards alone will be an upgrade over Handzus.
Given how close the Blackhawks were to winning another Stanley Cup last season -- we're literally talking a bounce here or there in that mind-melting series against L.A. -- the team honestly could've done nothing and entered the upcoming season with legitimate Cup aspirations. However, in a Western Conference that's increasingly dangerous, with Kings, Ducks, Blues and Stars all looking like possible title contenders, improving up the middle was important for Stan Bowman and company.
Richards may not be a true star player anymore, but the beauty of Chicago's situation is that it doesn't demand greatness. The Hawks already have great players peppered across their top two lines -- what they from Richards is supportive playmaking, something he's proven capable of doing in the past.
There's also a reason why Richards chose the Blackhawks, and it goes beyond the chance at a title. He likely recognized the opportunities for his skill set alongside talents like Patrick Kane and Brandon Saad, and what such partnerships could do for his career. As much as Chicago needs a strong center to play behind Toews, Richards needs a strong opportunity to finish his career on a high note.
Richards may not be the true game-changer everyone was hoping for -- the Ducks and Blues certainly made bigger moves by getting Ryan Kesler and Paul Stastny, respectively -- but he's a legitimate short-term upgrade for a team that's already pretty set long-term. We talk a lot about the lack of financial flexibility and how it might impact the Hawks in the future, but astute signings like this one will do well to keep Chicago ahead of the curve.