All around the Western Conference, good teams were getting better. The Anaheim Ducks added Ryan Kesler. The St. Louis Blues signed Paul Stastny. The rising Dallas Stars acquired Jason Spezza and Ales Hemsky. The Colorado Avalanche lost Stastny but added Jarome Iginla and Danny Briere. The surging Minnesota Wild inked Thomas Vanek.
The Blackhawks stayed quiet.
“We have a plan,” Hawks general manager Stan Bowman said, somehow both reassuringly and cryptically, at the NHL draft this past weekend.
That plan never was to make a big splash. Yes, the Hawks made a run at Kesler, but the math was always going to be tricky on such a deal. Meanwhile, the Hawks didn’t have the long-term cap space for Stastny. Didn’t have the need for Vanek. Didn’t have the desire to blow anything up for a one-year rental on Spezza.
What the Hawks had was a long-standing yet (they hope) temporary hole at second-line center. They also had the allure that comes with being a perennial contender and the talent to resurrect careers. Brad Richards had what they needed. And the Hawks had what Richards wanted.
Patrick Kane and Brandon Saad, meet your new center.
“It’s pretty exciting, because you know if you’re playing center on the top two lines, you’re playing with a great player — or two great players, actually,” Richards said after signing a one-year contract worth just $2 million on Tuesday, the first day of free agency. “It wasn’t hard for me to love Chicago. It was just about trying to figure out how to make it work in the cap.”
Actually, it doesn’t work. Not yet, at least. The move, coupled with the re-signing of Peter Regin for $650,000, puts the Hawks about $2 million over the cap with 23 players under contract (including Teuvo Teravainen). So Bowman’s work isn’t done — he still needs to move at least one roster player to free up the money. But he got his man.
Richards isn’t the point-a-game guy he once was — a guy who scored at least 20 goals nine times, a guy who twice handed out more than 60 assists, a guy who got a nine-year, $60-million contract from the Rangers. But, he and the Hawks hope, he’s also not the guy who tumbled all the way to New York’s fourth line in the Stanley Cup playoffs this spring before being bought out of that mega deal.
If he’s anything in between, the 34-year-old Richards — the unofficial captain of the Rangers after Ryan Callahan was dealt to Tampa Bay — could be the short-term answer that bridges the gap to Teravainen, the long-term answer to the Hawks’ never-ending question at second-line center.
It’s the kind of sneaky pickup that Bowman has built a reputation for. With Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane set to sign record-setting contract extensions any day now, Bowman couldn’t afford to pick up anyone for longer than one year. So on draft day, he broached the idea of a one-year deal with Richards’ agent.
“That was the only way this was going to work,” Bowman said of the one-year deal. “It’s a testament to Brad and how badly he wants to win. I don’t doubt that he left more money and term on the table.”
Of course, after getting bought out for some $20 million, Richards didn’t exactly need the money. Plus, the Hawks give him a chance to chase a second Stanley Cup (he won one with Tampa Bay in 2004), while flanking him with the kind of talented wingers that can help turn his career around.
“I’m pretty confident that I can still play a lot of hockey in this league,” Richards said. “I just went to the Stanley Cup Final. You get the itch when you get that far — you want to win.”
Kane, who’s played alongside a never-ending carousel of centers over the past few years, quickly tweeted out a welcome to Richards. The job is still Teravainen’s to win. But the Hawks have been adamant that they won’t burden their prized prospect with high expectations too early. This allows the 19-year-old to start the season in Rockford, or on a lower line, until he adjusts to the North American style and forces the Hawks’ hand. Andrew Shaw, meanwhile, can go back to the third-line role he’s built a career on.
“Now we have some latitude with Teuvo,” Bowman said. “He’s going to dictate when he’s ready to go. We don’t have to force anything.”
No, it wasn’t the splashy move so many of the Hawks’ rivals made. And there are legitimate concerns that Richards can keep up in the rugged Western Conference. But the Hawks didn’t need to make the big splash. Remember, they were one measly goal from probably winning their second straight Stanley Cup.
There’s a natural inclination to want to respond to all the big moves around you. But the fact is, the big moves around them are all responses to what the Hawks and Los Angeles Kings have built and accomplished over the past five seasons. For them, it’s not about changing. It’s about maintaining.
“I think I can help them and they can help me,” Richards said. “That’s why it’s a good fit.”