Krupa: Richards arrived at Red Wings party too late

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News
Brad Richards

Brad Richards would have been a great Red Wings player, except for the timing.

Had he arrived early in his career, when he worked for the late Bill Davidson, owner of the Pistons who also owned the Tampa Bay Lightning, Richards would have skated with Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk in his prime, and theirs.

Instead, he played with Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis, and they won the Stanley Cup in 2004 and helped establish the NHL in Florida.

Richards, who announced his retirement this week, was a marvelous player. Ten 20-goal seasons, 932 career points and two Stanley Cups offer some evidence, and the testimony is long, through his service with five franchises, that he was an anchor “in the room” and a good guy.

That he arrived here at the nadir of his career and during a dip in the fortunes of the Red Wings franchise is unfortunate. Richards and the Wings had disappointing seasons.

The experience illustrates the Red Wings’ circumstances. Building a bridge from great success in the past to the next era of triumph is difficult, and the franchise is stumbling.

Signing Richards and free agent defenseman Mike Green last summer, the club asserted it had finally had good luck in the offseason.

General manager Ken Holland saw Richards as a transitional figure, someone who could fill in for the injured Datsyuk at the start of the season and then center the second line, allowing Datsyuk and Zetterberg to play together, while buying time for younger players to mature.

He also hoped Richards and Green would boost the power play.

Holland said he had called Datsyuk to let him know about the arrival of Richards and the likelihood of significant playing time with Zetterberg.

Holland said Datsyuk was pleased.

The previous season, when no big free agents were signed, Mike Babcock said his veteran leaders called him, registering their disappointment.

Slipping production

What we did not know when Holland said he called Datsyuk was what both men revealed last month: Datsyuk already had been talking to Holland for two years about his unhappiness.

Richards was not the answer. Scoring 10 goals and assisting on 18, he fell down the depth chart. He moved back up toward the end of the season, when the Red Wings returned Anthony Mantha to Grand Rapids.

The previous regular season, Richards had shown signs of diminished performance before heating up in the playoffs and helping the Blackhawks win the Stanley Cup.

The Blackhawks did not re-sign Richards, who made $2 million during their Cup-winning season. The Wings signed him for $3 million and added a $250,000 bonus when Richards played in the first round of the playoffs.

But criticizing the decision has less to do with whether it was about $1 million to $1.5 million too rich. It is more about the Red Wings’ continuing string of disappointments in the free-agent market and whether signing and playing Richards delayed the development of young talent.

Those are questions Holland and the Red Wings continue to face, as Frans Nielsen, Thomas Vanek and Steve Ott join the roster this season.

Gustav Nyquist and Tomas Tatar still look for more ice time with top-six forwards. Andreas Athanasiou searches for more ice time anywhere. Mantha and perhaps others (Tyler Bertuzzi? Dylan Sadowy?) try to crack the lineup.

As a free agent, Richards performed better than Steven Weiss. He was healthier than Mike Modano or Erik Cole. But he did not match Daniel Alfredsson, who tied for the Wings lead in scoring with 18 goals and 31 assists in 2013-14, the last season of his outstanding career.

Alfredsson is the only free agent signed by the Red Wings in several seasons whose success approached the hopes of management.

Not a good report card.

Looking to the kids

That Mantha played for the Griffins for the balance of the stretch drive last season and in the playoffs rather than experiencing the playoffs in the NHL for the first time is of less concern. But the need to develop prospects only becomes more urgent.

Meanwhile, Nielsen is likely to enjoy success. But if Vanek stumbles or Ott fails, playing “the kids” should take greater precedence this time.

Richards’ season in Detroit underlines the Red Wings’ status as a team struggling through a rebuild on the fly, and stumbling.

All of which is a small footnote to his career.

He is back in Tampa. General manager Steve Yzerman said he tried to make cap space to sign Richards in 2011. Do not be surprised if Yzerman, after the best season of any general manager in the game with his adroit handling of Steven Stamkos, Jonathan Drouin and a myriad of salary cap issues, latches on to Richards for a coaching or management role.

Meanwhile, the Rangers are on the hook for Richards’ $6.7 million in annual salary for the next four seasons, as part of a mammoth, nine-year deal inked in 2011.

You think the Wings have some bad contracts?