Healthy center filling Star role

BY DAMIAN CRISTODERO

Times Staff Writer

TAMPA – Ask Marc Crawford to describe what makes Brad Richards
so good, and the Stars coach sounds as if he is reading from a
prepared list.

“Very gifted offensively; a very creative mind. He’s a terrific
play-maker; sees the ice real well. He can see like a quarterback
the second and third options that are available. He has tremendous
vision, and he’s got great hands to go with it.”

Anything else?

“He has a great shot.”

Crawford could have added that Dallas’ star center is playing at
his highest level since the
Lightning traded him to the Stars in
February 2008.

Richards entered Sunday tied for the league lead with nine
points, seven assists and at plus-7. For the first time in two
years he is completely healthy, and the Stars, who face Tampa Bay
tonight at the St. Pete Times Forum, are 4-0-0.

“I’m having a great time here,” Richards said. “I’m probably in
the best shape of my life. I just feel great.”

That said, Richards, 30, and Tampa never really broke ties.

He still has a house on Davis Islands, where he spends part of
the summer, and he trains in the offseason at Saddlebrook Resort in
Wesley Chapel.

There also is no forgetting what he meant during the
Lightning’s 2004 Stanley Cup run,
when, with seven winning goals, he was awarded the Conn Smythe
Trophy as playoff MVP.

Perhaps that is why there is still some bitterness in his voice
when he talks about how his time in Tampa ended.

Richards was traded under the watch of prospective owners Oren
Koules and Len Barrie, who, though they had not yet bought the
team, were allowed by then-owner Palace Sports & Entertainment
to have input into its February 2008 trade deadline business.

Richards, dealt for goalie Mike Smith and forwards Jeff Halpern
and Jussi Jokinen, declined to address that specifically, but he
called the way it all played out “a debacle,” and the way the team
was being run “weird and unprofessional.”

“It was a frustrating time in my career,” he added, “because I
didn’t think it had to happen that way.”

Then came the injuries: a broken right wrist, then a fractured
left wrist for which he needed surgery in March 2009. And another
surgery around the same time for a shoulder problem. The result:
just 48 points in 56 games for the Stars in 2008-09.

More surgery in April repaired a hip labrum tear.

Even with the painful joint, Richards rebounded with 91 points
last season, seventh in the league, and has benefited from playing
consistently with linemates Loui Eriksson and James Neal, whom he
called “great young players who are getting better every day.”

“It feels like it did back in the early days of Tampa when I
knew every year I’d be playing with Marty (St. Louis) and (Fredrik
Modin),” Richards said.

Richards also is getting some much-deserved recognition, and at
the right time. With the five-year, $39 million deal he signed with
the
Lightning in May 2006 ending after
this season, Canada’s Globe and Mail said Richards might be “the
most attractive potential unrestricted free agent out there.”

“The fact of the matter is he gets it done,” said
Lightning captain Vinny Lecavalier,
one of Richards’ best friends. “He’s got great vision. He’s a great
passer.”

Sounds like Lecavalier was reading from Crawford’s list.

VINNY UPDATE: Lecavalier, who during Saturday’s 6-0 loss to the
Panthers took a slap shot off the first knuckle of his right hand,
continued to have soreness Sunday, the team said, though no further
testing was done. His playing status against the Stars will be
determined today.

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