By Stu Hackel
Trades that make the biggest news usually involve the biggest names. For example, Alex Kovalev -- who hardly burned up the league during his two seasons with Ottawa -- grabbed lots of headlines when the Senators dealt him on Thursday back to the M*A*S*H* unit also known as the Pittsburgh Penguins. Kovy is still a premier name in the NHL, but largely because of talent he doesn't use. He's thought of as a potential impact player although he hasn't really had an impact since 2007-08 when he skated for the Montreal Canadiens.
With the trade deadline looming on Monday -- we'll be live blogging here at Red Light starting sometime around 10 a.m. Eastern time -- one big name seems to be hovering over the proceedings as the impact player most often mentioned as likely to change sweaters. Whether he gets traded or not, he will also provide the biggest drama. That would be Dallas Stars center Brad Richards.
There are so many contingencies surrounding Richards' status that he may well end up going nowhere. The factors that favor him moving begin with the Stars' unsettled ownership situation. He is a pending UFA and while the Stars would like to keep him, their ownership uncertainty makes negotiating and signing a contract extension equally uncertain.
Richards has seen this movie before, or something like it, in 2008. That's when the ownership of the Tampa Bay Lightning decided to get out of the hockey business and started jettisoning players in advance of the team's sale, hoping for a cheaper roster that might still make a playoff run (it didn't). Richards, who was in Year 2 of a five-year contract with the Lightning worth $39 million, was shipped to the Stars at the deadline. That deal is now coming to an end.
Stars GM Joe Nieuwendyk had once maintained that Richards wasn't going anywhere, especially as long as Dallas was in the playoff picture. But he said earlier this week that the team had yet to decide whether to keep Richards. The Stars have fallen of late and today are sitting in the crazy Western Conference's eighth spot, but they are actually tied with four other teams at 70 points and those five occupy the sixth through eleventh spots in the standings.
Regardless, Nieuwendyk understands that if one of the clubs interested in the 30-year-old former Conn Smythe Trophy-winner presents an overly attractive deal, he can't say no and risk losing Richards for nothing in July. “Our first option is to keep him and sign him, but if teams are interested, we have to listen,’’ Nieuwendyk told Mike Heika of The Dallas Morning News.
Who's interested? The Rangers and Kings apparently. New York's coach, John Tortorella, was Richards' boss in Tampa Bay. Larry Brooks of The New York Post reported on Thursday that Nieuwendyk told Glen Sather the opening price for Richards would be Marc Staal, Brandon Dubinsky and Derek Stepan, who are among the core of the Rangers' rebuilding youth movement. That would qualify as overly attractive for the Stars, but for the Rangers it could only be a starting point in negotiations.
Brooks' competitor at The New York Daily News, Jesse Spector, reported the same day that he learned the Stars were going to be buyers, not sellers come Monday and that Richards wouldn't be going anywhere.
TSN's Bob McKenzie mentioned earlier this week that Richards was "unquestionably a person of interest for the Kings," who McKenzie expected to be very active leading up to Monday. Los Angeles was also supposedly sniffing around other names, too -- Edmonton's Ales Hemsky, and to a lesser extent Dustin Penner, and Florida's David Booth -- and had lots of good prospects at AHL Manchester to offer. If prospects are what Nieuwendyk wants, maybe there's a fit there, but McKenzie added that if current NHLers like Wayne Simmonds or blue chip prospects like Brayden Schenn are going to be moved, then Kings GM Dean Lombardi will want a contract player in return, and that's not Richards.
Complicating matters is that Richards has a no-trade clause, so he can reject any destination he finds unacceptable. Matthew Barnaby, who reviewed Richards' situation with E.J. Hradek yesterday on ESPN.com (video) mentioned that Richards would be a great fit in Buffalo, but doubted he would waive his no-trade to join the Sabres, probably because he doesn't see them as a Stanley Cup contender. If true, it would be too bad in a way because Richards would be a great centerpiece for Buffalo's new era under Terry Pegula.
The Toronto media, typically, made much of Richards' remark in November that, "Toronto’s always a No. 1 hockey destination. It would be great being a Canadian playing in Toronto." They even proposed a Richards for Tomas Kaberle deal, which won't happen now. It's been quiet on this front for a while, probably because the Leafs don't have much to offer Dallas.
There's also the matter of Richards' concussion from an unpenalized elbow to the jaw earlier this month delivered by Columbus's Sami Pahlsson from which he has recovered sufficiently to do some light skating on Thursday. Richards said he was hoping he'd be able to start skating when he spoke to reporters about his injury earlier this week...
...but there's no indication that he's ready to return to play.
Barnaby believes that Richards' injury would be the determining factor that prevents the Stars from moving him. Richards' former teammate Mike Modano also indicated he thought that the concussion would inhibit a transaction. "If the symptoms are still lingering close to that deadline, I don’t think anybody’s going to take a chance, not knowing if he’s even going to play at all," he told Yahoo Sports.
Then Modano added the wisest assessment of all: "Who knows?”