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July 3, 2014 | 2:38pm ET
Richards could be the missing link
By Tab Bamford,

CHICAGO, IL -- Things are far from broken in Chicago. The Blackhawks were an overtime goal in Game 7 away from playing in consecutive Stanley Cup Finals, and have most of the core from their 2013 championship under contract for next season.

But there had been one open wound in the Hawks' lineup that hadn't been solved.

Over the last three years, the Blackhawks have tried a number of bandaids as their second line center. Dave Bolland didn't work out there. Neither did Brandon Pirri. The Hawks won the Stanley Cup in 2013 in spite of a "washed up" Michal Handzus taking draws with the Hawks' top forwards. He wasn't a fix, either.

After losing to the Los Angeles Kings in this spring's playoffs, the Hawks' need for another top center was painfully obvious. Jonathan Toews and Marcus Kruger were the Hawks' only two consistent centers all year, and Chicago simply didn't have enough depth to overcome L.A.'s four pivots.

The Hawks were reluctant to commit a significant contract to a veteran center because significant increases in the cap number for Toews, Patrick Kane and Brandon Saad are all coming next summer, and their future may be less than a season away.

Teuvo Teravainen, the Most Outstanding Player in last year's World Junior Championships, has shown elite playmaking ability and is still only a teenager. Listed at only 5-10 and 190 pounds, there are also some who question if he can hold up against bigger centers in the Western Conference, like Ryan Getzlaf and Anze Kopitar.

Chicago started their off-season having conversations with Vancouver about Ryan Kesler, but ultimately weren't willing to deal one of their top prospects (Brandon Saad and/or Teravainen). Kesler wound up joining Getzlaf in the formidable Ducks' lineup.

They were linked to Paul Stastny and Jason Spezza, as well. But Chicago didn't have cap space for the $7 million cap hit of either, and they both landed in the Central with the Hawks' division rivals in St. Louis and Dallas, respectively.

Looking for a competent -- and affordable -- bridge to Teravainen presumably taking a spot among the Hawks' top six in 2015, Chicago found their answer in Brad Richards.

Richards, 34, becomes the third Conn Smythe winner on the Blackhawks roster for the upcoming season. His 51 points were good for third on the Rangers in the regular season, and he was one of only two Rangers to reach 20 goals (Rick Nash).

Unfortunately, for the Rangers, Richards is no longer the player who put up 168 points in 152 games with Dallas in 2009-10 and 2010-11.

Unfortunately, for Richards, the Rangers had a compliance buyout waiting for him when the Stanley Cup Final ended. After three seasons, Richards' time at Madison Square Garden came to a premature end.

Fortunately for the Hawks, Richards became available and the price was right for GM Stan Bowman.

For one year -- and $2 million -- Richards becomes the best second line center in the Chicago lineup since Patrick Sharp abandoned the position after the 2010 Cup win.

"It's a big moment for us to be able to add someone of (Richards') caliber as a hockey player and as an individual," Bowman said. "There are a lot of options for our coaching staff now. We've certainly been searching for someone that is an experienced center in the NHL."

Richards expressed a lot of excitement in his initial phone call with the Chicago media and on Twitter in the hours the signing, and it's easy to see why. He joins a Blackhawks team that had five players score at least 20 goals and five with at least 60 points (a number no Rangers player reached last season).

"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," Richards said. "Patrick Kane is one of the most explosive players in the league. When you get a chance to maybe team up with one of those players on a line ... it makes you feel pretty excited."

But while Richards joins a loaded Chicago lineup, hes also jumping into a Central Division that remains the class of the NHL.

With the addition of Spezza in Dallas, the Central Division now contains six of 18 players in the NHL to score at least 20 goals and win at least 50 percent of over 1,000 faceoffs last year; Richards' 49.76 at the dot leaves him just short of being the seventh to achieve that distinction.

We won't know if Richards is the missing link in Chicago's lineup for 11 more months, but we do know he's better than what they've had over the last three years. And the one year term of the deal affords Richards the opportunity to test the market again next summer, and the Hawks the ability to give their best prospect the time to develop.

Tab Bamford is a Columnist and the Chicago Correspondent for The Fourth Period.

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