For years, the most obvious flaw in a largely exceptional Chicago Blackhawks roster was at centre. Jonathan Toews is a brilliant No. 1 pivot, but the second-line job featured a revolving door of mostly underwhelming candidates.
Is Brad Richards the long-awaited solution to that longstanding issue?
At first glance, the answer is a resounding “yes.” Richards posted 51 points in 2013-14, which is pretty good production for that slot. It’s his worst season in ages; he had 91 points just five years ago and was better than a point-per-game player in 2010-11. He’s also a “name” presence, having won both the Lady Byng and Conn Smythe trophies in 2004 when the Tampa Bay Lightning won the Stanley Cup.
Further, the player being displaced from the roster to make way for Richards is 37-year-old Michal Handzus, who managed three points and a minus-eight rating in 19 postseason games for Chicago. There seems to be no question that Richards will be a significant upgrade.
The question, though, isn’t whether Richards is better than Handzus, who had clearly passed his “best before” date. How does he compare to other No. 2 pivots in the competitive West?
|Top Centres on Western Conference Playoff Teams|
|Team||No. 1 Centre||No. 2 Centre|
|Anaheim Ducks||Ryan Getzlaf||Ryan Kesler|
|Chicago Blackhawks||Jonathan Toews||Brad Richards|
|Colorado Avalanche||Matt Duchene||Nathan MacKinnon|
|Dallas Stars||Tyler Seguin||Jason Spezza|
|Los Angeles Kings||Anze Kopitar||Jeff Carter|
|Minnesota Wild||Mikko Koivu||Mikael Granlund|
|San Jose Sharks||Joe Thornton||Logan Couture|
|St. Louis Blues||David Backes||Paul Stastny|
The above is the kind of list that really drives home the point of how ridiculously competitive the Western Conference is.
There could be some argument on the list above; I’ve projected Jason Spezza, Paul Stastny and Ryan Kesler into those roles with their new teams, anticipated Nathan MacKinnon moving back to centre full time and have Thornton ahead of Couture based on average even-strength ice time. Overall, though, I think it’s a reasonable assessment of the situation.
Here is how the players we’ve identified as No. 2 pivots have performed in terms of points per hour and Corsi percentage during five-on-five play over the last three seasons:
|5-on-5 Scoring and Corsi Percentage, 2011-14|
Unsurprisingly, we see the young players (MacKinnon and Mikael Granlund) have some two-way problems, while somewhat surprisingly Kesler has really struggled to score at evens over the last few seasons. Richards fares pretty well, falling roughly into the middle of the pack, but there are some caveats worth noting.
First, while players such as MacKinnon and Granlund are still progressing, Richards is on the downward slope of his career arc. A quick glance at his scoring numbers over the last five seasons demonstrates this:
Most people aren’t familiar with looking at points per hour, so we’ll explain it a little. Anything in the 2.50 range is an exceptional number.
Phil Kessel was the 17th-best five-on-five point scorer in the NHL last season at 2.52 points per hour. Something in the 2.0 range is really respectable first-line production; Anze Kopitar ranked 76th among five-on-five scorers in 2013-14 with a 2.05 points-per-hour total.
But Richards’ 2013-14 scoring numbers weren’t actually all that great. The average NHL forward (min. 40 games) in 2013-14 scored 1.58 points per hour, which is a little better than what Richards managed.
Fortunately, these things don’t tend to go in straight lines; while we expect Richards to drop off, we wouldn’t expect the cliff to be quite as steep as it was in 2013-14. Based on his track record, we’re likely to see a bounce-back 2014-15 season, similar to the way he bounced back in 2012-13 after a tough 2011-12 season.
The other caveat is that Richards has been getting an offensive-zone push for several years in New York, starting twice as many shifts in the offensive end of the rink as in the defensive end.
It wasn’t always like that—Richards earned a well-deserved reputation for being a tougher-minutes forward early in his career—but as he ages, he needs to be used a little more judiciously to produce. That’s fine for Chicago, where they have that luxury, but it just reinforces the idea that Richards is a declining player.
Put it all together and it strikes me as likely that, as far as Western playoff teams go, Richards is only going to be an average second-line centre for the Blackhawks.
The good thing for Chicago is that represents a massive win. The Blackhawks have been a legitimate contender without anything resembling a No. 2 centre; the presence of Richards bolsters the position in a major way.
Besides which, at a modest $2.0 million salary, Richards doesn’t need to even be an average second-line centre to justify his contract; he’s likely to be one of the league’s better bargains next season at that price.
Richards is a fantastic acquisition for Chicago.
Jonathan Willis covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter for more of his work.