Richards solves second-line center issue

There will be no experimenting in the training camp. There will be no shuffling and re-shuffling of players. Patrick Kane won’t have to wonder who he is playing alongside on any given day.

The Chicago Blackhawks put an end to all those issues Tuesday by going out and finally addressing their greatest need. In signing Brad Richards to a one-year contract, the Blackhawks have themselves a true second-line center for the first time in a few years.

The Blackhawks were able to get by during their 2013 Stanley Cup season with variety of centers in the regular season and Michal Handzus in the playoffs. But they weren’t as fortunate this past season, and their lack of a consistent second-line center was one of their downfalls against the Los Angeles Kings -- a deep centermen team -- in the Western Conference finals.

Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville didn’t think the Blackhawks lack of a consistent second-line center was a problem the last few seasons, but he was honest about the Kings’ depth at the position just last week.

“I think [having many second-line centers has] been going on almost every year I’ve been here,” Quenneville said at the NHL draft Friday. “It’s not an issue with me. I just think if you can better your team [you do]. You know we played against a team in L.A. down the middle who had four great centermen with great experience. That helped their hockey club.”

Having four experienced centermen should benefit the Blackhawks in that same way. They’ll have Jonathan Toews, one of the league’s best two-way players, on the top line. They’ll add an experienced center in Richards on the second line. Andrew Shaw can return to centering the third line and continue providing offensive and defensive reliability there. Marcus Kruger can remain being one of the league’s top fourth-line centers. They’ll also have depth at center with Teuvo Teravainen and Peter Regin.

“It was important for us to try to get some depth at that position,” Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman said on Tuesday. “Obviously Brad is more than depth. He’s an established, experienced player. I just think you can never have too many guys who can play in the middle.”

Richards’ arrival should benefit Kane the most. Kane played alongside six different centers last season. He still produced at an elite level despite that, but having some of Richards’ ability on a full-time basis should allow Kane to elevate his game further.

Richards understood what it meant for himself as well.

“When you look at the opportunity to play here, it’s pretty exciting because you know that if you’re playing center on the top two lines, you’re playing with a great player, probably two great players actually,” Richards said on Tuesday. “It wasn’t hard for me to love Chicago. It was just trying to figure out how to get it to work in the cap.

“I’ve watched these guys play the last 6-7 years. Patrick Kane is one of the most explosive players in the league. It’s not just him. It’s a great group that’s been together and knows how to win. When you get a chance to maybe team up with one of those players on a line, whoever is on your line, it makes you feel pretty excited. I can’t wait to get to work and try to make it a great experience for everybody.”

Richards also allows the Blackhawks to ease the 19-year-old Teravainen, their top prospect, into the NHL and give him a full year of experience before likely handing over the second-line center role to him the following season.

For all those reasons plus a cheap $2 million price tag, Bowman was ecstatic to add Richards to his roster.

“It’s a big moment for us to be able to add someone of his caliber as a hockey player and as an individual,” Bowman said. “He brings so many things to the table for us. He’s certainly got the experience and his leadership. I think his character off the ice is something sometimes gets overlooked and is important to us. He’s got sort of the whole package we’re excited about.”