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Tuesday, December 13, 2011
Daily Debate: Rangers hit the jackpot with Brad Richards

By Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun

Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun discuss Brad Richards’ influence on the Rangers’ success, the Stars’ depth and the slowly improving Capitals.

Burnside: Good day, my friend. Interesting night in the NHL with the L.A. Kings playing in Boston without Terry Murray, but perhaps the game with the most emotional oomph will be the Rangers hosting the Stars. Yes, I know, interconference, but it's still a homecoming of sorts for the Rangers’ top center, Brad Richards, who declined to sign in Dallas when he became a free agent last summer. It's a decision that has worked out remarkably well for the Rangers, who have won 14 of 18 and have to be considered one of the top teams in the league as we head into the holiday season. Richards has been as advertised, a stabilizing force who is tied with sometimes linemate Marian Gaborik for the team lead with 25 points in 27 games. He has 11 power-play points to lead the team, and given his longtime association with head coach John Tortorella dating back to their shared time in Tampa, he appears to have stepped seamlessly into a key role for the Rangers. I spoke to Richards a couple of weeks back when the team was really starting to cook, and he said that he felt he could play better and that he had expected the transition to a team and market like New York to take some time. Looks like mission accomplished, and watching the Rangers, you have to wonder just how far they might travel next spring.

LeBrun: Yes, I had the Rangers all the way up to second overall in our Power Rankings last week until you dropped them to fourth Monday, Scotty. That’s how impressed I’ve been with the Blueshirts. The way in which they’ve overcome Marc Staal’s absence has been stunning. Dan Girardi, in particular, is playing the best hockey of his career and leading the entire NHL in ice time at 27:41 per game. Impressive. But yes, Tuesday night is all about Richards against the Stars. You mentioned that he decided not to sign with them this past summer. That decision was made way before then. He was out the door in Dallas before the end of the regular season -- the big reasons being that the Stars were ownerless and that he had been dealt out of Tampa by the Oren Koules-Len Barrie ownership group. Richards told me several times last season that he craved finding a more traditional hockey market with stable ownership. He hit the jackpot, obviously, in New York. All along, the Rangers were my bet for Richards based on the aforementioned criteria but with the cherry on top of being a chance to be reunited with Tortorella. And to me, the coach showed he has faith in his star center when Tortorella took Richards away from Gaborik fairly early in the season and paired him with Ryan Callahan. That might have been perceived as a snub by some players, but Richards understood what the coach was doing. The Richards-Callahan pairing -- mostly filled out as a line with Ruslan Fedotenko -- has been the heart of the offensive engine for the Rangers this season.

Burnside: Well, you are nothing if not a visionary. The other side of the game’s equation, though, is the Stars, and you have to be impressed with rookie head coach Glen Gulutzan and how he’s managed to stabilize the Stars after a period in mid-November saw them lose five straight. The Stars are 5-3-1 since that slide threatened to undo all the good work they did blazing out of the gate the way they did. Andrew Raycroft has been handling most of the goaltending duties with Kari Lehtonen out of action with injury -- Lehtonen’s durability, something that has plagued him throughout his career, again is being called into question -- although Richard Bachman got the win in Los Angeles on Saturday and looks to get the start Tuesday night against the Rangers. Eric Nystrom is having a terrific season with 10 goals, which have him tied for the team lead, and was a shrewd pickup by GM (and new Hall of Famer) Joe Nieuwendyk, who essentially needed Nystrom to get to the salary-cap floor when Sean Avery was sent to the minors. The Stars lead the suddenly sad-sack Pacific Division. A playoff berth is by no means assured. Still, you know the Stars aren’t complaining about their lot in life one-third of the way through this campaign.

LeBrun: The loss of Richards this past summer enabled the Stars to add seven players with that same salary he left behind, led by the likes of Sheldon Souray, Vern Fiddler et al. Nieuwendyk told me in training camp he was convinced that adding all that depth would be the difference this season if and when injuries struck. Last season, without that depth, the Stars plummeted down the standings when the injuries hit in January. This time, however, Nieuwendyk has been proven right so far with his team hanging in there despite a rash of injuries. And to the Stars’ credit, from Nieuwendyk down to the players, all of them insisted in camp that they would be way better than people thought. I think they took it personally when the loss of Richards made many experts count them out in the preseason. Nothing against Richards -- the Stars players enjoyed having him on board -- but there’s a collective chip on the shoulder of the Stars this season, no question about it. It’s a reminder, just like the surprising success of both the Florida Panthers and Minnesota Wild, that it’s a team sport and it’s not just about big-name players. If all 23 players are pulling in the same direction, some surprising things can happen.

Burnside: The other game that I’ll keep an eye on Tuesday night will be the Philadelphia Flyers’ visit to Washington, where the beleaguered Caps are enjoying a modest two-game win streak, their first such streak under new head coach Dale Hunter. The Caps have won three of four and edged back into the top eight in the tightly packed nether regions of the Eastern Conference. You knew they weren’t as bad as their record had shown before and immediately after Bruce Boudreau was fired and replaced by Hunter. But how good can they be? This is a good test, as the Flyers own the top spot in terms of points in the Eastern Conference. Of course, it's also a test of sorts for the Flyers, who will be without emerging Hart Trophy candidate Claude Giroux. The star forward is out indefinitely with a concussion, according to GM Paul Holmgren, after taking a hard hit to the head courtesy of the knee of teammate Wayne Simmonds. The Flyers are also without captain Chris Pronger indefinitely, as he will be visiting concussion doctors in Pittsburgh this week to see about his own concussion symptoms. Still, it's a good test for both teams moving forward.

LeBrun: It doesn’t sound as though Pronger will be back any time soon, and we wish him all the best in his recovery, but the Flyers must learn to play without him for a while. For Giroux, it's getting a little more disconcerting. He’s been the most dynamic offensive force in the NHL this season, so it’s a huge loss for the Flyers. My sense is that the Flyers need to play a more defensive game Tuesday night. Maybe 1-3-1? Just kidding, Coach Laviolette. But certainly without Giroux, it makes no sense to get into a game of trading chances with the suddenly re-energized Caps. We’ll see how it plays out, my friend.