Admittedly, it is by the slimmest of margins, but at the moment I write this on Sunday Morning, Dec 19, the Dallas Stars continue to lead the Pacific Division and sit #2 in the Western Conference overall after 32 games.
32 games means that we are far enough into this season to feel like we have a reasonable sample size to know what is what. It also means there is 50 games to go in an ultra-competitive and entertaining National Hockey League.
The goaltending has been as good or better than anyone could have imagined. I may not be accused of being an optimist very often, but many in the organization thought that Kari Lehtonen could be awesome this season. Honestly, he has been awesome this year. I know the metrics are what they are, but he does something that the NHL does not necessarily keep track of - but we all do - he makes THAT save when That save is needed.
The defense is always under the spotlight but they have come through pretty well. There are still plenty of question marks - Matt Niskanen and Mark Fistric are still being challenged to seize the moment - but I must admit that Nik Grossman and Trevor Daley both look better than I can remember. Daley looks better because he has steady play next to him with Jeff Woywitka looking like a diamond in the rough. Woywitka is that guy in your organization that you figure is "better than nothing" when you brought him in, but after watching him, I have to believe the Stars now see him as a guy who they should not be scratching. He was #7 last year on the blue-line, but there is no way he is not a Top 6 guy on a routine basis if you are watching him.
Lots of good things are happening right now. But, there is still this elephant sitting in the middle of the screen that I cannot see around.
Quick Exercise: Who leads the Stars in Goals? Who leads the Stars in Assists? Who leads the Stars in Points? Who is the most dominant force in a Stars jersey since Mike Modano was in his prime?
And yet, as I cruise my favorite hockey websites from around North America, the theme continues to be "where will Brad Richards be playing in March?".
Help us, if it isn't 2500 Victory Avenue Dallas, Texas 75219.
I understand it is not my hockey team and not my money, but as you already know, I believe Brad Richards is worth every penny that he has been paid and with his contract expiring, will likely be worth every penny he gets as a free agent this summer.
Richards is 30 years old, and clearly the Stars franchise player. He is a special player who is in the Top 10 in scoring this year after finishing in the Top 10 last year, too.
James Neal and Loui Eriksson are both tremendous players on this franchise - but people like me wonder if they look so much better because they are getting constant service from Richards.
Can it be measured that the Stars usually only have one dependable line, and despite every effort from the opponent to "not let 91 beat us", he still does many nights?
He cannot get away.
But, let's understand the components of this conversation: 1) do the Stars have the financial ability to ink him to a deal with the ownership situation still very much in flux? And then the thing nobody is discussing, 2) does Brad Richards believe that this franchise is committed to Stanley Cups in what remains of his prime? In other words, does he want to stay?
You and I need to show as much patience as possible so that the Stars can get the ownership situation cleared up. But, Brad Richards, who already has won one Conn Smythe Trophy, has a limited amount of time to be a dominant #1 center. Let's say 3 or 4 more years. Why would he play on a team that has payroll paralysis if there are other options around the league that want to win a Cup right now, and are only a Brad Richards away?
With one trade, he could be anchoring a team that is snug against the cap and writing every check they can to play deep into June.
This cannot happen.
I want to be patient, but the closer we get to March 2, 2011 (Trade Deadline Day), the more I feel panic setting in. Sure, the Stars could get a few picks and a few prospects for Richards. An auction for him could be phenomenal. But, I am not interested, no more than I would be interested in trading Mike Modano for picks and prospects in 2001. Teams spend years looking for legitimate #1 centers. The Stars have one in their prime.
Joe Thornton, 1 year older than Richards, just signed a 3-year deal with San Jose for $21m dollars. That would seem to be a reasonable template to work off for Richards. I think it could be argued that they are pretty comparable players in the last few years. But, the difference might be that Thornton believes the Sharks are worthy of marrying for the rest of his prime. I sure hope Richards feels the same way about Dallas. But, until we get the ownership situation squared away and back up to spending to the cap, how could he?
My nervousness grows...