DALLAS -- It's a Thursday morning at American Airlines Arena, and Stars assistant coach Stu Barnes is dropping pucks between centers Brad Richards and Jason Williams for face-off drills. Barnes looks like a nervous aquarium owner at feeding time for the piranhas, yanking his hand back quickly before it's sliced by the swirling stick blades below.
Richards wins some and loses some to Williams, in keeping with his season-long faceoff success rate in regulation games: 50 percent -- 476 draws won, 475 lost. Fifty-fifty is about the percentage many Stars-watchers seem to put on Richards returning to Dallas for next season and beyond.
The Stars no doubt would like to keep a player who has put up 223 points in 217 games since he was acquired from Tampa Bay in 2008. But with the franchise officially up for sale and no certainty about who might succeed financially-strapped owner Tom Hicks, there may not be nearly enough money to keep a player like Richards in tow. If not, he figures to be the biggest fish in the aquarium known as the NHL free agency period, which begins July 1.
"It's gone on this long, so it's going to have to wait longer I guess," says Richards while discussing the limbo-like status of his contract and the franchise. This is the second ownership mess that he has been a part of as a player. Despite winning the Conn Smythe Trophy for the Stanley Cup champion Lightning in 2004, Richards and his five-year, $39 million contract were deemed too expensive by incoming owners Oren Koules and Len Barrie, who ordered former general manager Jay Feaster to deal him -- a disastrous transaction that netted Tampa Bay Mike Smith, Jeff Halpern, Jussi Jokinen and a fourth-round pick.
With a cap-strapped roster that also included Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis, Feaster knew he might have to deal Richards after the 2007-08 season. But his plan was to wait until the summer, at the NHL draft, when he felt he might get a much better return. Instead, Barrie and Koules -- who weren't even officially the owners yet -- overruled him and ordered the trade. That was the final straw for Feaster, who quit not long after the season. Now, Feaster is the GM of a financially sound Calgary franchise that might have just enough room under the cap to make a nice offer to one of his favorite players.
"Trading Brad was a very difficult thing to do," Feaster says. "I felt, and still believe, the return could have been much greater had we moved him at the draft in June. Trading him was tough because we'd been through a lot together and I considered him a great leader and an unsung part of the fabric of our locker room."
At this year's NHL trade deadline, Richards' name was prominent in the usual feeding frenzy of rumors. With the Stars on the playoff bubble, some observers thought he would be parceled out in another "get something for him while we can" arrangement like the one in Tampa. Others felt Richards was the Stars' main reason for hope that the franchise would get back into the playoffs for the first time since 2007-08 when it made the Western final. Before the clock started really ticking on a decision for Stars GM Joe Nieuwendyk, however, everything was essentially taken out of his hands in a Feb. 13 game against Columbus.
Coming across the middle of the ice, Richards was hit by Blue Jackets center Samuel Pahlsson and ended up with concussion-like symptoms. On trade deadline day, Feb. 28, Richards was still sidelined with the injury but had no firm prognosis. Any possibility of trading him was essentially off the table.
Without Richards, the Stars lost their next four games. Their, and Richards', season hasn't been the same since. Dallas entered Thursday basically needing to win its final three games and get help elsewhere to make a playoff spot that seemed guaranteed at the time of Richards' injury.
"What distracted me at the trade deadline wasn't my contract situation, it was sitting there with a head injury. That was the problem at the trade deadline," says Richards, who turns 32 in May and has a no-movement clause in his deal. "Ultimately, there was never anything brought to me (from management, about a trade) and ultimately, who knows whether I would have waived it? I kind of knew that nothing was happening because I wasn't involved in anything."
Richards, one of the league's premier setup men who has that unteachable extra second of patience with the puck, returned on March 9, but his game seemed off. He went pointless in five of his next 10 contests, with only one goal. The Stars won just twice in that span. He entered Thursday's game with the Avalanche on a three-game point streak, but it might prove too little, too late for Dallas.
The Stars were still alive when the day began, but the frustration of the previous two months was plain in Richards' words. "That run we made to the Western Conference final when I first got here, it's been a little disappointing since then," he says. "I kind of thought we were ready to make a couple runs. Everything else has been great in Dallas. I've got my game back the last two years where I wanted it to be and I'm playing with great teammates. But not being in the playoffs has been tough. We're just going to try and fight our way back in."
Stars winger Loui Eriksson made his first NHL All-Star team this season due, in part, to playing on Richards' right side. He sounded like a player who might give up some of the $4,266,667 he's guaranteed for this and the next four seasons if it could also guarantee the return of his center linemate.
"He's really helped my career. I owe a lot to him," Eriksson said. "In the beginning, he really talked to me a lot and told me ways to get better. The last couple years, we've played real well together. I hope he stays for sure, but that's a business decision."
Stars coach Marc Crawford doesn't make the comparison lightly when he says Richards possesses some of the on- and off-ice qualities of a player he once coached, one who just happens to be among Richards' biggest idols: former Avalanche captain Joe Sakic.
"He works extremely hard off the ice, and just the professionalism that he brings -- I see a lot of similarities in how they approach the game," Crawford says. "Joe used to always amaze me with the work that he did on game-days and post-game and the professional example that he always exhibited. I've talked to Brad about that and he gets a little glimmer in his eye when he hears that."
One reason why Richards is so good with younger teammates, Crawford said, is because he has time for them away from the ice.
"He's a single guy, and consequently there's a lot of younger, single guys that end up spending time with a veteran, mentor-type of guy and Brad definitely is that," Crawford said. Indeed, Richards is probably Dallas' most eligible hockey bachelor since Mike Modano made female hearts swoon for years here.
Whether Richards remains a part of the Dallas dating -- and hockey -- pool after July 1? Who knows?
There's a lot of fish in the sea.