What Are the Chicago Blackhawks' Options If Brad Richards Does Not Work Out?

Steve SilvermanFeatured ColumnistSeptember 2, 2014

LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 13:  Brad Richards #19 of the New York Rangers plays against the Los Angeles Kings during the first period of Game Five of the 2014 Stanley Cup Final at the Staples Center on June 13, 2014 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Rebecca Taylor/NHLI via Getty Images)
Rebecca Taylor/Getty Images

The Chicago Blackhawks are not looking for miracles from Brad Richards in 2014-15.

When they signed the former New York Rangers center at the start of free agency, Stan Bowman and Joel Quenneville did not assume that they had brought in an all-star to play between Patrick Kane and Brandon Saad on the Blackhawks' No. 2 line.

Instead, they projected that the aging Richards, 34, would have at least one decent season left in which he could show off his offensive skills in a way that benefits Kane and Saad. Two seasons might be nice, but one season is all that is required.

But what if Richards does not work out? He was benched by former Rangers head coach John Tortorella in the 2013 Stanley Cup playoffs because of his ineffective play, and he was demoted during last year's postseason by Alain Vigneault.

When two coaches decide to bench or limit a player's time in back-to-back postseasons, it's reasonable to conclude that there is a deficiency to their all-around play.

The big difficulty seemed to be with his defensive play. He appeared to be a step or more behind the action in both of the Rangers' last two playoff years, and both coaches decided that alternative moves with the lineup had to be made.

The Blackhawks are a significantly stronger team than the Rangers. In addition to making the tough Western Conference Final last year, they have won two Stanley Cups in the last five years. The Blackhawks have higher standards than the Rangers.

So, while Bowman and Quenneville are hopeful that Richards can be a difference maker at the No. 2 center position, they have to realize that there are no guarantees. If neither man is satisfied with Richards' performance over the first 10 or 20 games of the regular season, the Blackhawks may be forced to go to Plan B.

Just to reiterate, that would take a rather drastic failure. Richards scored 20 goals and 31 assists last year for the Rangers while playing all 82 games. His numbers indicate a fairly consistent offensive showing, and it wasn't until the postseason that his play was judged harshly.

However, if his play slips even more this season, the first choice would likely be to move Andrew Shaw up from the third line to the second line. The Blackhawks have attempted this strategy in the past, but it has not worked consistently.

Shaw is a hard-working grinder who leaves everything he has on the ice each game, but he is not a smooth passer or stick-handler. It doesn't make sense to position a player who does not possess those skills between Kane and Saad.

Fourth-line center Marcus Kruger would appear to be the next alternative. Kruger has excellent defensive skills, but he is not a productive offensive player. He scored a career-high 28 points last year, and that type of productivity does not qualify him to play center between two such talented players.

The next alternative would appear to be minor league center Mark McNeill, 21, who plays for the American Hockey League's Rockford IceHogs. McNeill scored 25 goals and 42 assists while playing for the Prince Albert Raiders of the Western Hockey league in 2012-13, and he hit the board with 18 goals and 19 assists for the IceHogs last year.

He is a solid player with some creative skills and could conceivably adapt to the No. 2 center role. McNeill has size and strength at 6'2" and 218 pounds, but he would have to show he could skate well enough to help out the explosive Kane and the fast-skating Saad.

Ultimately, Richards is trying to hold down the position long enough for Teuvo Teravainen to grow into the job. Teravainen was the Blackhawks' No. 1 pick in 2012, and Bowman remains convinced he has the skill to become an NHL star; however, Teravainen needs to add strength and get used to the physical North American game before he becomes a consistently productive player.

The Blackhawks could rush Teravainen back to the NHL if they are unhappy with Richards; however, if they bring Teravainen up before his game has fully matured, it could hurt him and the team in the long run.

Since that's a situation that the Blackhawks want to avoid at all costs, it would appear that promoting McNeill would most likely be the best situation if the Richards signing backfires.

The Blackhawks believe that signing Richards was the right move, but they have alternatives if it does not work out.