Under Pressure: Brad Richards

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“Under Pressure” is a preseason series we’ll be running on PHT. For each team in the NHL, we’ll pick one player, coach, GM, mascot or whatever that everyone will be watching closely this season. Feel free to play the song as you read along. Also feel free to go to the comment section and tell us we picked poorly.

For the Chicago Blackhawks, we pick … Brad Richards

Brad Richards is probably used to pressure.

For years, he’s been making big money — stemming in part to his Conn Smythe run with the Tampa Bay Lightning — but largely because he’s often been one of the most prolific offensive players in the NHL. Either way, his consistently large checks (Cap Geek estimates his career earnings at $85.78 million) often meant that being a very good scorer, but rarely top-10, left people occasionally disappointed. If nothing else, he’s been in “prove it” mode, especially recently.

But in Chicago, he’ll face a different kind of pressure.

From “overpaid” to a bargain?

Following being bought out by the New York Rangers, the 34-year-old is now a low-risk, high-reward bargain at a $2 million cap hit. Any money-related questions will instead revolve around “can he make big money next summer?”

Instead, the bigger pressure will come from proving that he can cure what’s been ailing the Blackhawks in bad times and even some good times as well: not having a quality second-line center.

While there’s a chance that Teuvo Teravainen might grab the role he’s being groomedfor, the expectation is he’ll need to acclimate himself to the NHL game and should find himself in the AHL for at least portions of the 2014-15 season.

In other words, the Blackhawks would prefer that Richards can be their short-term second-line center. So what are the odds he pulls it off?

A lot rests on Coach Q

That’s a tough call. If you can set aside Richards’ rather disconcerting work in the last postseason or two, he at least put up the kind of boxcar numbers you hope for; he scored a very nice 20 goals and 51 points for the Rangers last season. Anything in the realm of that production would be great for Chicago, especially since a second-line gig could mean working with some combination of Patrick Sharp, Patrick Kane and so on.

Most signs point to Richards needing to be sheltered, though, which makes the argument that it’s imperative to put him with a guy who gets a lot of offensive zone starts in Kane (both were in the top five in easiest zone starts last season). While Richards’ possession stats look very good in the regular season — and glaringly worse in basically every measurable way during the postseason, for whatever reason — he also played what seemed like an offense-only role that might limit his versatility if his skills really are declining as much as it appeared at times during the Rangers’ deep run.

The burning question

It’s weird to imagine a guy taking a cut in salary as someone who might be a scapegoat, but Richards lands into a situation that could be lucrative … unless he just doesn’t “have it” anymore.

Basically, if he thrives, he can make a lot of money and maybe even win a second Stanley Cup. If he flounders, Richards could find himself as someone facing blame if Chicago gets eaten alive when he’s on the ice during the postseason.

With all that in mind, there’s a lot riding on the 2014-15 season for Richards, even if the potential spoils of victory would come in about a year or so.

Goalie nods: Vezina candidates clash as Bobrovsky faces Holtby

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Sergei Bobrovsky leads the NHL in GAA, at 2.04. Braden Holtby sits second, at 2.05.

Bobrovsky leads the NHL in wins, with 39. Holtby sits second, with 37.

Holtby leads the NHL in shutouts, with eight. Bobrovsky sits third, with six.

Perhaps you see where this is going.

Tonight, the two will square off in a much-anticipated game, as the Jackets travel to Washington to take on the Caps.

“It’s a great opponent,” Bobrovsky said, per NHL.com. “It’s going to be interesting. It’s one of the best teams in the League, so we’ll see. We’ll see who’s going to be better.”

Holtby is the reigning Vezina winner, while Bobrovsky captured the trophy three years prior. Both have already been unofficially shortlisted for this season’s award — along with Devan Dubnyk and, perhaps, Cam Talbot — but tonight’s game is about much, much more than goaltending.

The Caps head into the tilt two points up on Columbus for first spot in the NHL (and just one up on Pittsburgh). Columbus has made it clear it would love to capture the first Preisdents’ Trophy in franchise history, and a victory tonight would be a big step towards it. The Jackets, Penguins and Capitals all have 10 games left in their respective seasons, and Columbus will have one more shot at each this year.

Elsewhere…

— The Bolts begin a back-to-back set tonight, and will start Peter Budaj against the Bruins. Tuukka Rask will likely be in for the B’s, after allowing three goals on just 22 shots in a loss to Ottawa on Tuesday.

Keith Kinkaid, who’s seen more playing time that usual down the stretch, will get another start when the Devils take on the Leafs in New Jersey. Curtis McElhinney goes for the Leafs, after Frederik Andersen beat Columbus last night.

— It’s Matt Murray versus Mike Condon as the Penguins take on the Sens.

Eddie Lack, who’s played very well since being verbally lambasted by head coach Bill Peters, looks to start when the ‘Canes take on the Habs in Montreal. Carey Price will be in goal for the Canadiens.

— After Reto Berra’s first start in over a year on Tuesday, the Panthers will go back to James Reimer against Arizona. The visiting Coyotes will start Mike Smith.

Ryan Miller goes up against his old Blues teammates as the Canucks visit St. Louis. Jake Allen, who continues to be one of the better comeback stories this season, looks for his seventh win in his last eight starts.

Chad Johnson gives Brian Elliott a night off as Calgary takes on Nashville. Looks as though the Preds are going back to Pekka Rinne, after he earned his third straight win over the Coyotes on Monday.

— It’s Steve Mason versus Devan Dubnyk as Philly travels to Minnesota.

Corey Crawford will look to bounce back after allowing four goals on 10 shots (and getting hooked) against Vancouver on Tuesday. The visiting Stars look like they’ll go with Kari Lehtonen.

— Some thought Cam Talbot, the NHL’s leader in starts, would get a rest tonight in Colorado after getting hooked against Anaheim last night. Nope. Talbot’s back in, going up against Jeremy Smith for the Avs.

— In the late game, Winnipeg’s Connor Hellebuyck gets back in goal after Michael Hutchinson scored a rare win on Tuesday. He’ll be in against Ben Bishop, who looks to keep the Kings’ faint playoff hopes alive.

‘Hawks sign Kero to two-year extension

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Chicago has re-upped with winger Tanner Kero on a two-year deal, the club announced on Thursday.

Kero, 24, is in his second season with the ‘Hawks. He made his NHL debut in ’15-16 and has earned a more prominent role this year, scoring 12 points through 38 games.

Undrafted out of Michigan Tech, Kero parlayed a strong senior season — which included being a Hobey Baker finalist — into a contract with the ‘Hawks. He’s spent quite a bit of time in AHL Rockford, emerging as a quality goalscorer.

That said, Kero has developed a more well-rounded game with Chicago, and impressed head coach Joel Quenneville in the process.

“He’s reliable in a lot of ways,” Quenneville said, per CSN Chicago. “He puts himself in the right spot, down low in his own end, underneath coverage, and seems to be useful in killing penalties as well. There’s more offense in his game that hopefully can come around and add to his reliability defensively.

“We feel he’s done a good job of being a guy in the middle you can use and we like what he’s brought to our team in a position where, [earlier in] the year, I don’t know if he was forecast to be a regular like that. But he’s become more and more reliable, or used more.”

Financial details of the new contract weren’t released. Kero is in the last of a two-year, $1.85 million deal with a $667,500 average annual cap hit.

 

Fehr: Players won’t negotiate with NHL over Olympics

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If the NHL was hoping the players would surrender something for the right to go to the Olympics in 2018, the NHL should think again, according to NHLPA chief Donald Fehr.

“Obviously the players are not about to engage in collective bargaining in return for getting an opportunity to go to the Olympics for which they aren’t being paid, where very valuable things would go elsewhere in return for that,” Fehr told ESPN today.

It was reported back in November that the NHL had offered to go to the Olympics, in return for the players accepting a CBA extension.

Not long after, it was reported that the NHLPA had rejected the league’s offer.

Looking ahead, the NHL may still be holding out for another party to offer some concessions — that party being the IOC.

“We don’t even get the opportunity to promote the fact that we’re at the Olympics,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said earlier this month, per FanSided. “We don’t get to use the rings. I’ve said to the IOC, you know, Coca-Cola is a sponsor, they get to promote their association and say proud sponsor of the Olympics. They won’t let us do that…there’s no recognition of the value by the IOC and the IIHF that we bring to the Olympics.”

Read more: Bettman argues that Olympic participation hurts NHL product

Bettman’s latest Olympics update was not very positive.

“There are no negotiations ongoing,” he told Reuters earlier this week. “We were open to having discussions on a variety of things that might mitigate the damage to our season but that had no resonance. As things stand now people should assume we are not going.”

Ristolainen suspended three games for hit that concussed Guentzel

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Buffalo defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen has been suspended three games for interfering with Pens forward Jake Guentzel, the NHL’s Department of Player Safety announced on Thursday.

Ristolainen was given a five-minute interference major and game misconduct for the hit in Tuesday night’s tilt, which left Guentzel bloodied and, as we later learned, with a concussion.

Pittsburgh head coach Mike Sullivan confirmed the diagnosis in his postgame presser.

Ristolainen, 22, didn’t have any prior history with the DoPS, which has yet to release a video explanation for the punishment. It could be argued that Guentzel was in a prone position, and that Ristolainen took advantage of it.

“I thought it was bad,” Penguins forward Chris Kunitz said of the hit, per the Buffalo News. “The puck doesn’t get to him. He’s looking to get the puck to get into the play, and the guy holds up a second and then he still goes through him.”

As a result of today’s announcement, Ristolainen will now sit out Buffalo’s game on Saturday against Toronto, Mar. 27 against Florida and Mar. 28 against Columbus. He’ll be eligible to return on Sunday, Apr. 2, when the Sabres take on the Isles.

Ristolainen will also forfeit $90,000 in salary to the Players’ Emergency Assistance Fund.