The Dallas Stars are being given an extreme test in perseverance this season. After enjoying a magical ride in the playoffs that took the team to game six of the Western Conference Finals the Stars were a hot pick in the West heading into this year. Dallas soon found living up to expectations were difficult when faced with injuries to Sergei Zubov, Jere Lehtinen, Steve Ott and eventually captain Brenden Morrow. After a dismal start to the season and a last place standing in early December the team banded together and has become one of the hottest teams in the NHL, rising all the way to fifth place in the West. The Stars were able to overcome injuries to key players with guys on the fringe stepping up and filling the void. Yet now its uncertain if Dallas can overcome yet another injury to one of the most important players on the ice.
On every team there is a core group of players that is vital to the success of your team. These guys play in every situation whether it's the power play, the penalty kill, or the last minute of a desperate comeback. They are the emotional nucleus of your team and the rock the others fall rely on when things go south. A team can only survive so many losses of these types. Without Sergei Zubov and Brenden Morrow, the fight for a playoff spot was always going to be an uphill battle. But the loss of Brad Richards could affect this team in so many ways the battle has become infinitely tougher.
So how does the loss of Richards impact the Dallas Stars? While detractors state he will never live up to his outlandish salary, there is no doubt he has become one the most respected and consistent players in the locker room. His absence will be felt in every aspect of the game and the question now becomes what do the Stars do to replace him.
Centering the second line.
Early in the season with the team struggling, the Stars juggled lines nearly every night. The one constant was the line of Morrow, Ribeiro and Eriksson. Yet when Morrow was sidelined for the rest of the year with an ACL injury, Dave Tippett eventually found a few combinations that started to pay off in a big way. With Steve Ott and Jere Lehtinen returning from injury he put them on a line with Ribeiro and moved Eriksson down to play with Brad Richards. He added newly acquired Brian Sutherby to the second line and the Stars found two lines that were tenacious, solid defensively and most importantly they produced on the ice.
So how do the Stars replace the center on a line that features the team's leading goal scorer? Loui Eriksson has benefited from Richards' playmaking ability and is well on his way to a 40-goal season.
There are several wingers on the team that can play center; Steve Ott, Brian Sutherby and Mark Parrish are all capable. Yet it's tough to break up your top scoring line so Ott should stay where he is. The ideal scenario would be to use Toby Petersen as the second line center and reunite the big line from last year's playoffs of Lundqvist, Petersen and Eriksson. So then the lines could look like this:
Of course, Sutherby and Lundqvist could easily switch. Sutherby has been solid on the second line next to Richards so it's tough to move him down too far. Yet this scenario would result in the least juggling of the lines and reunite the productive line of Neal, Modano and Conner who played so great during the Stars' win streak.
Who picks up the slack on the scoreboard?
Anytime you lose a center it becomes a big deal. When that center is your second leading scorer, then you start to have problems. Brad Richards was brought to the Stars for his playmaking ability as well as his solid two-way play. Richards is one of the best in the league at funneling pucks to the net and putting the pass exactly where only his teammate can get it. Loui Eriksson, enjoying the best season of his career, is a perfect example of a player benefiting from his playmaking skills.
The Stars will now rely on player like Fabian Brunnstrom, James Neal, Chris Conner and Brian Sutherby to pick up the slack in Richards' absence. All of these players have shown goal scoring ability and will now by called upon to produce at an even higher rate than before. Yet it's not just goals, its set ups and assists. Richards' ability to find the open man is one that is nearly irreplaceable.The fact that naming four players as ones who need to produce the same as Richards and yet it still not being a certainty shows just how much his scoring ability will be missed.
Who plays the point on the power play?
With Sergei Zubov gone for the year the Stars have struggled to fill his spot on the point. They experimented by putting Mike Modano and Brad Richards together, yet that never seemed to work. When Darryl Sydor re-joined the team he took Modano's spot on the point and allowed him to move to his more natural position along the boards. Brad Richards remained along the blue line and the Stars have experience a revitalization on their power play over the past month.
Yet with Richards gone, does Modano move back to the point? He has a big shot but it was painfully obvious he was not comfortable playing the blue line. Perhaps Matt Niskanen, who already has 21 assists on the season and has played there before could fill the void.
One player who could definitely step in and make a difference is Trevor Daley. He has matured into a solid defenseman whose offensive skills make him a prime candidate for the power play. He doesn't have the biggest of shots from the outside but he has become adept at making tough cross-ice passes in the offensive zone.
Who steps up as a leader on the team?
The Stars have already lost two of the most respected leaders this season in Zubov and Morrow. Brad Richards will never be a loud, fire-em-up guy yet he leads by being one of the classiest and most consistent players on the ice. He only has six penalty minutes on the year, in 55 games played. He is a disciplined, steady player in the defensive zone and never loses his cool and takes a dumb penalty.
He also knows how to respond to criticism and judgment. Early in January Dave Tippett called out Richards specifically as a player who needed to step up his play and set the example for his team. He responded with four points in his next three games. After an extremely poor effort in Chicago this last Saturday, Richards scored just 27 seconds into the next game on a play that was nothing but hustle and effort.
So who will step up and take Richard's spot as one of the top leaders on the team? Steve Ott has already been deemed Brenden Morrow #2. Marty Turco and Mike Modano are solid team leaders yet you can't let one leave and not replace him.
Perhaps James Neal can step up and learn from Richards. He has a fire and desire inside of him to make the game-winning play for his team every shift but must learn how to play more disciplined hockey. Perhaps Trevor Daley is the guy who holds the team accountable and uses his play as an example for the rest of the team. Loui Eriksson could become the silent leader who uses his scoring as a rallying point for the team.
There's no doubt that replacing Richards will be a tough task. No one player can step up alone and fill the void while he is gone and it will take a team wide effort to continue the trek to the playoffs in his absence. No matter what happens, the value Brad Richards has to this team will immediately become clear. Yet the Stars cannot let this injury derail them in their quest to securing a playoff spot. Some teams are able to use injuries to key players as motivation to improve play across the board.
Each player on this team must now realize how important they are to the Dallas Stars. When a player like Brad Richards is lost for any amount of time it takes every single player on the ice, every single shift, to step up their play that much more. How the Stars respond now will be the ultimate test in an already difficult season. Yet if this team comes together and overcomes this obstacle there is no telling how far they can go once the playoffs start.