What should Dallas do with their franchise player?
As the trade deadline approaches, the most interesting player whose fate hangs in the balance is Dallas Stars centerman Brad Richards. Richards is the only truly elite forward available, and at the beginning of the season it was thought that he would be available at the deadline, as Dallas was not expected to contend. But after the Stars' hot start, who could ask GM Joe Nieuwendyk to trade Richards at the deadline, knowing that a potential playoff run was in the making? Dallas' uncertain ownership situation has only made the situation even more complicated, as it's not even certain that they would be able to re-sign Richards during the off-season even if they wanted to, knowing the hefty salary a player of his caliber can demand. Over the last three weeks, the Stars have gone 2-7-1 and are now fighting for their playoff lives. So now it all comes down to the question: what should Dallas do?
Trade him. The Stars are not that good a team, as Gabriel Desjardins has pointed out, and their odds of making any noise even if they reach the playoffs is low. The mainstream media has made Richards out to be an
MVP contender this season, and while many are impressed with high point totals, it will take more than that to blow me away. Richards is an excellent, talented player, but is not the franchise player he is made out to be, and I doubt paying him 8M$ a year is the way to build a Stanley Cup contender. All recent elite teams have had a world class center, and with the exception of Sidney Crosby, who is in a class of his own, none of them has a cap hit of more than 6.7M$: think of Pavel Datsyuk (6.7M$), Mike Richards (5.8M$), Jonathan Toews (6.3M$ this year, but much less when Chicago won the Cup) or Ryan Kesler (5.0M$). There's nothing wrong with breaking this rule if the player you're signing is Crosby (or Steven Stamkos), but Ilya Kovalchuk taught us that overpaying for an offense-only player is not the recipe to build a winner.
Let's see how Richards stacks up against the league's elite centers. I have chosen the most recognizable #1 centers in the league: Crosby, Stamkos and Mike Richards from the East, and Toews, Datsyuk, Kesler, Henrik Sedin and Anze Kopitar from the West. I also added a player who hasn't yet put up the large totals of his peers but who is an exceptional player in his own right, Joe Pavelski. First, an easy category, goals created per 60 minutes at even strength:
We can see that Richards, despite having one of his better offensive seasons, is behind half of the other centers in normalized point production. Ah, but Tom, you say: everyone knows Richards is at his best on the power-play! Okay, let's find out:
Better, but not quite elite. Richards is tied for sixth in overall power-play points in the league, but this is by virtue of the immense amount of power-play time he receives; if you normalize by ice time, he falls to 42nd, behind players like Paul Martin, Tomas Holmstrom, Cam Fowler and Mark Recchi.
Star players also have other benefits: since they are such dangerous threats, they are able to draw penalties, especially if they can keep their own tempers under control. Here again, Richards comes up short against his most talented peers:
Finally, there is the ability to control the puck and play against quality opponents. I wrap Relative Corsi, Zone Starts and Quality of Competition into a statistic called DeltaSOT (measured in goals; see here and here for a description). Once again, it doesn't look good for Richards:
Richards will be, in many ways, this season's Ilya Kovalchuk: a player with large counting totals and an offense-first game who will command a very large salary in the offseason. While Richards is far more of a two-way player than Kovalchuk, he is not a complete center like Toews or Datsyuk. The two players closest to Richards in their usage and production are Henrik Sedin and Evgeni Malkin, both of whom are very talented scorers but whose point production is inflated by their purely offensive roles while another player (Ryan Kesler and Sidney Crosby, respectively) does the heavier lifting. Note that Malkin and Sedin are better point producers than Richards: each has won the Art Ross as NHL scoring champion, while Richards has never finished higher than sixth.
Brad Richards is an excellent player, and at the correct price could be a key component of an elite NHL team. However, he is a pending unrestricted free agent and is unlikely to give a hometown discount; his price won't be cheap, and he will be 31 years old in May. Somebody is going to overpay, so Dallas should make sure they get a return on their player while they still can.
Tom Awad is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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