Keeping Brad Richards Healthy Key to Chicago Blackhawks Holiday Hopes

When the Chicago Blackhawks signed Brad Richards to a one-year deal on July 1, 2014, they filled a long-needed position on the team; the role of the second-line center.

Certainly his health will be towards the top of the team’s wishlist this holiday season.

Richards, who will return to the Blackhawks lineup tonight against the Nashville Predators, has not played since an injury obtained in a December 20 3-2 overtime loss against Columbus.

But more importantly, along with him the Blackhawks return a sense of familiarity, with Richards skating alongside wingers Kris Versteeg and Patrick Kane on the second line once more.

It sounds strange that a team that has enjoyed as much success as the Blackhawks have this decade–two Stanley Cup championships, four Western Conference Final appearances-would be in need of filling such a valuable role, but the reality is the second-line center has been a position the Blackhawks lacked even during the magical 2009-’10 and 2012-’13 seasons.

Alongside Kane and Versteeg, Richards has been part of one of the most productive–and most dangerous–lines in the entire NHL, with the Hawks trio combining for 15 even-strength goals this season when skating together. Those numbers have them sixth in the league, tied with, among others, Sydney Crosby and the Penguins’ top line.

Richards has amassed six goals and 18 points in 33 games thus far while recording a plus-minus rating of plus-9. The veteran center is winning just under half of his faceoff draws at 48.5 percent.

A True Second Line Center

When the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup in 2010 and again in 2013, Joel Quenneville’s line-juggling was rampant throughout the postseason. Things haven’t changed since, with Quenneville routinely mixing lines and defensive pairings in order to win. Patrick Sharp will be moved to the fourth line during tonight’s game against the Predators.

During the 2010 Cup run, however, it was Sharp who anchored the second line as its center, skating then with Andrew Ladd and Kane on the wings. Sharp, a better fit on the wing, was moved back there during the 2011 season, in which the Blackhawks experimented with Kane as the second line center behind Jonathan Toews. It didn’t work.

Michal Handzus, Dave Bolland, Andrew Shaw and Marcus Kruger all floated around in the Blackhawks center-by-committee approach behind Toews during the 2013 Cup run, but none ever rose to be the staple, go-to-guy on the second line.

Bolland and the Blackhawks parted ways in the offseason after his Stanley-Cup-winning goal  and Handzus’ tenure with the club ended after the 2013-14 season ended in heartbreak.

But the Richards signing in the offseason was a shot in the arm for the team, adding another star player to a side already littered with them.

Pressure Off Richards, Team

Richards’ production on the ice hasn’t just been limited to his points scored; he’s given the Blackhawks a reliable, two-way player who facilitates play, much in the manner that Toews does, and the results have been dynamic.

Playing under the New York spotlight wasn’t always enjoyable with the pressure that came with the territory, and while the pressure is on the Blackhawks–one of the hottest teams in the league since November–to live up to their high aspirations, Richards personally has been able to float under the radar thanks to the team’s depth and star-power.

Better still, Richards has given the Blackhawks the time they need to develop top-prospect Tuevo Teravainen, who, at just 20 years old, is widely considered to be a future star player. Teravainen failed to make an impact at the NHL level when he was called up late last season, but has been the top scoring forward for the Rockford Icehogs this season.

Richards’ role for the Blackhawks has been as advertised thus far, and if he remains healthy the Blackhawks second line should continue to be among the league’s best, a dangerous proposition considering that noted goalscorers Toews, Sharp and Marian Hossa don’t play on it.