By Stu Hackel
Brad Richards of the Dallas Stars currently sits sixth in NHL scoring (10-15-25 in 19 games) and he's in the final year of his contract. Meanwhile, the franchise continues to live with ownership uncertainty. The Tom Hicks mess forced the Stars under the control of a group of lenders led by Monarch Investment Group and Galatioto Sports Partners with no potential buyer close to making a deal. This raises the question of whether the team will be able to sign Richards to a contract extension, or be forced to deal him before the trade deadline, or risk losing him to free agency on July 1.
The complexities of the situation mean that the negotiations to keep Richards may involve the team, the NHL, the lenders and Hicks' people. Stars GM Joe Nieuwendyk has huddled with Commissioner Gary Bettman to communicate how much the Stars would like to keep Richards, how happy Richards is playing for Dallas, and to keep everyone aware that the clock is ticking on his free agency.
The Stars were in Toronto on Monday and since the Maple Leafs badly need a Number 1 center to play with Phil Kessel, Richards obliged the local media with some provocative quotes at the morning skate, such as, "When the time comes, if that’s an option, Toronto is always a Number 1 hockey destination. It would be great being a Canadian playing in Toronto, but we’re not even close to that bridge yet and, like I said, I’m focused here."
That one has the papers that follow "the Blue Team" salivating. A Tomas Kaberle-for-Richards trade has been offered up in the Toronto media as a way to get it done, and because that rumor comes out of Hogtown, it will likely get wide circulation even though Richards has a no-movement clause and Kaberle has a no-trade clause, both of which would have to be waived. In fact, the mill has already started churning.
But hold on: Nieuwendyk will surely have teams phoning him if an extension doesn't happen, and the Leafs may not be able to pay his price. It's probably going to take more than Kaberle to pry Richards away from Dallas, and what more do the Leafs have to offer? They don't have any high draft picks --they're all going to Boston, thanks to the Kessel deal. The Leafs can't part with a young stud forward or a surefire prospect because they don't really have one.
But why let reality get in the way of a hot rumor?
Working on a building: We wrote earlier today about the demise of the Spectrum in Philadelphia. There are a couple more stories in today's hockey press about old barns. Red Fisher, who has been recounting some of his hockey memories in The Gazette, wrote about the best of the old arenas, the Montreal Forum. And the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review updates the fate of the Igloo (aka, Civic Arena), which will be in front of the city planning commission as the Penguins hope to redevelop the property into a 28-acre mix of offices, homes and shops, which will certainly add to the team's bottom line.
Swiss missed: There are legal ways to circumvent the salary cap, and that was underscored earlier this year when the Rangers sent Wade Redden to AHL Hartford. The Blackhawks also ran a legal end-around by allowing Cristobal Huet to join Fribourg-Gotteron in the Swiss National League's A Division. Fribourg is picking up all of $200,000 of Huet's $5.6 million Blackhawks salary.
In The Chicago Tribune last Saturday, Philip Hersh wrote an excellent piece about Huet's new team, surroundings and uniform decorations, which include a Swiss Gruyere cheese ad on his jersey and another ad on his blocker for the candy bar Chokito. But one thing remains about Huet: He is still a terrific teammate, as he was at every NHL stop.
"Cristobal didn't walk in here like some star coming from the NHL," Fribourg defenseman Shawn Heins told Hersh. But he has become the top goalie in the Swiss League this season.
The Blackhawks, for whom Huet professes no bitterness, have not exactly pillaged the NHL in defense of their Stanley Cup championship so far this season. There is some thought that they lost much team chemistry when they had to unload nearly half their roster for cap reasons.
Huet threw a Super Bowl party for the Blackhawks at his downtown Chicago condo last February, providing the food and setting for the camaraderie. "Things like that make a great bond with a team," Chicago defenseman Brian Campbell told Hersh.
"The locker room feels different this year because guys like (Huet) aren't here anymore," captain Jonathan Toews said.
(Thanks to reader Garey Ris for the link.)
Only one game on the NHL schedule tonight: The Coyotes, who have won six straight and climbed to fifth in the West, host the Oilers. Phoenix is coming off a three-game road sweep of Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver, the first time the Coyotes done that since they moved from Winnipeg in 1996.
As was the case last year, the Yotes are getting balanced scoring (13 players have scored between three and seven goals; the seven by Radim Vrbata is the team high). They are playing solid team defense and getting good goaltending from Ilya Bryzgalov, who is 6-0-2 this month. He has a .924 save percentage during his personal five-game winning streak. The Coyotes have also played with more discipline and improved on the power play. The Oilers, last in the West, haven't been strong on the road this season, taking only nine of a possible 22 points, but they're coming off a 4-2 victory in Anaheim in which goalie Devan Dubnyk stopped 38 shots. Dubnyk, who is getting a chance to string together some games with Nikolai Khabibulin sidelined, hasn't lost in regulation in his four starts (1-0-3). Defenseman Ryan Whitney, in what may be the most unusual current NHL statistic, leads his team in scoring with no goals and 17 assists.