LOS ANGELES — The idea was that Brad Richards, wily veteran and skilled playmaker, was going to step right in and immediately fill the longstanding void at second-line center for the Blackhawks, instantly give Patrick Kane the center he had been waiting for, and pay instant dividends from his discount offseason signing.
It didn’t quite work out that way. A new city, new teammates, a new style of play, a new wife and a new baby all conspired to make September and October a difficult time for Richards.
“I would have liked to do that, that’s your goal,” he said. “But I had a lot more than hockey I was dealing with, too. It was more important in my life to get my wife comfortable and have a baby. That took a lot of energy, and she’s not even from North America (she’s Australian), so you want to make sure she’s comfortable. That’s not an excuse, but there’s a lot of things going on.”
Better late than never. Now that he’s finally settled in, Richards is starting to look a lot more like the former Conn Smythe winner who earned a nine-year, $60-million contract from the New York Rangers, not the bought-out fourth-liner who signed a one-year, $2-million deal with the Hawks over the summer.
After posting just four assists in October, Richards had six goals and six assists in 14 November games. Since joining Kris Versteeg and Kane to form a red-hot second line, seven games ago, he has three goals and four assists. He scored three times in the last two games of the circus trip, leading the Hawks to big wins over the contending Ducks and Kings.
So Richards had to go on the road to finally feel at home.
“Every day, it feels more like it’s my team,” he said. “It takes a little bit to feel like you’re a part of everything. You’re trying to make friends, get to know people, why is this happening, what’s going on here. Every day you start to realize things. And we all want to be perfect right from Day 1, [but] sometimes it just doesn’t happen. … Right now I’m getting a lot of help from my teammates, my linemates, and it’s feeling a lot more like home.”
Richards took a beating in New York, ending up on the Rangers’ fourth line during the playoffs and a frequent target of criticism in the press. It’s one of the reasons he chose to sign with the Hawks.
“It’s a lot different,” he said. “I’m not going to get into it, but it’s obvious that a nine-year deal going to New York is a lot different than a one-year deal coming into a team that’s won two Cups. I was fortunate that I could be picky in the summer and try to find a good fit. That’s what I did, and here we are.”
Of course, just two days before the start of the season, Richards was replaced on Kane’s line with Andrew Shaw, and was dismayed and frustrated to find himself on the fourth line, playing as little as 10 or 11 minutes some nights. Hawks coach Joel Quenneville wasn’t thrilled with the speed of his game as the 34-year-old struggled to fit in with the Hawks’ puck-possession, uptempo style.
If a guy on a cheap one-year contract could be considered a bust, Richards was looking like one early. Then he got another chance with Kane and Versteeg, and he busted out.
“He’s worked trying to learn how we play; I think that was part of it, getting up to speed,” Quenneville said. “He didn’t get a lot of ice time or a lot of opportunity [early on]. And he just seemed to take off with those guys.”
And suddenly, he’s the exact player the Hawks envisioned when they signed him, in the exact role they signed him for.
“As the days go by, you just feel more comfortable,” Richards said. “And you get an opportunity to play with Patrick Kane, you want to take advantage of it, because he’s a special player. Right now, I’m trying to do that, take advantage of playing with those guys. It’s nice when the team starts rolling and it feels like you’re helping. That makes you feel like you’re part of it.”