It's funny how an 82 game schedule plays out sometimes.
December, with it's daunting 16 games and level of difficulty was supposed to derail a team that had overachieved through the opening two months. It didn't. The club posted signature wins in Detroit and San Jose, weathered a storm early in the month and beat down Montreal at home to stake a brief claim atop the Western Conference.
January and it's paltry eleven offerings was supposed to offer rest and good health after the fires of December. It didn't. The month started brilliantly at 7-0-1 but ended badly and saw the team reeling with injuries in addition to two outrageous defeats in Calgary and Vancouver.
February was to be merely survived. Simple (.500) hockey would suffice and keep the Stars ahead in the Pacific Division while the team licked it's wounds. It (.500 hockey) would have, too, but nothing is ever that simple. Several additional key injuries and a rocky start to the month opened the door to this Brad Richards hoopla and produced a 3-8-1 record. Far from .500.
What people expect from March will largely depend on what happens at the NHL Trade Deadline on Monday, but that's probably not how Joe Nieuwendyk sees it...
Continued after the jump
If Brad Richards is traded on Monday to the Los Angeles Kings or the New York Rangers or some dark horse candidate no one sees coming there will be a certain group of Stars fans that sees that as a white flag. They'll group the James Neal and Matt Niskanen trade with it and they'll say "Dallas was a seller at the deadline" and that will be that in their minds. That's simply not true.
Joe Nieuwendyk showed us last February what he was all about when he didn't trade Marty Turco. Granted, the asking prices for Marty Turco and that of Brad Richards are vastly different, but the principle is the same. GM Joe wants to win. He wants to win this season. He wants to get into the playoffs. Last year the Stars went on a little run right before the Olympic break and that sliver of hope was enough for the club to not be sellers at the deadline. It turned out poorly but that's the risk you take when you stick your neck out in the name of achieving a goal. Like making the playoffs.
If Nieuwendyk feels he must trade Brad Richards, it's not a reflection on this season and this playoff race like the talking heads on Hockey Night in Canada and TSN would have you believe. If he trades Brad Richards it tells us, in my opinion, more about their private conversations and about what's happening behind the scenes with the sale of the team than it does what's happening on ice this season. It tells us what Joe thinks his chances are of re-signing Brad are, not anything about the team's ability to make the playoffs.
This morning the Stars are in 7th place, or if you like, a tie for 6th, and in a lot of ways they are now better prepared for the horrors that lie ahead in a Richards-less world, having come through this abysmal February with their heads above water. Even if just barely.
They fought the Canucks much harder last week then they had all year long. The 5-2 score looks bad but they were down a single goal with four minutes to play. Then they battled the hottest team in the league in the Devils to a stand-still for 55 minutes until a fluky goal took them out of it. Then they blasted the Wings 4-1 and came back in the third period to beat the Preds in regulation.
The improvement has come without Brad Richards in the midst of the madness surrounding his situation. I won't go as far as to say that the Stars are learning how to win without him just yet, because he is without a doubt the most important player on this team and they need him back badly, but let's just say they've discovered that winning without him is an option, and they've taken these steps without him.
Should he be traded, they will be expected to push forward without him as they've done in the last two games.
The lessons of February will still apply. When they dedicate themselves to the details of their game they have a chance to win every night. When Kari Lehtonen plays like he has all week long, they have a chance to win every night. When the power play mixes in an occasional goal, like on Saturday, they have a chance to win. And quite frankly, when Jamie Benn puts on his big boy pants and dominates like he has since coming back (not talking about the score-sheet here) they have a chance to win every night.
Call it blind homerism if you want but my impression is that Richards will not be dealt. Either way, the Stars must use their experiences in February to accomplish their goal of getting a seat at the table come mid-April. Joe Nieuwendyk will expect them to, regardless of who is or who isn't on the team.