CHICAGO – Brad Richards in Chicago, learning to play with Patrick Kane and Brandon Saad. Jarome Iginla, playing on a Colorado line with Ryan O’Reilly and Matt Duchene. Ryan Kesler in Anaheim. Brian Gionta in Buffalo. It goes on and on.
The race is on for the new kids in class.
With the NHL right in the heart of its small preseason slate, a long list of accomplished forwards in new zip codes are getting used to different lines. They talk about tendencies. They make note of where each player is during each sequence. Chemistry is the goal, and the process could play a big role in the success of their teams.
“This is all new to me, so it’s kind of fun. A new experience,” said Richards, heading into his 14th NHL season, with his fourth team. “Having to get chemistry and do all that stuff, so it kind of puts you in a different frame of mind earlier.”
Richards steps into an enviable situation after he had his contract bought out by the New York Rangers in June. He signed a $2 million, one-year deal with Chicago on July 1, intrigued by a chance to make another Stanley Cup run with a veteran team looking for a second-line centre.
The 34-year-old Richards had 20 goals and 31 assists in 82 games last season, and then had 12 points in the playoffs to help the Rangers make it to the NHL finals.
“It goes without saying. This is a great opportunity,” he said after a recent scrimmage with the Blackhawks. “A lot of players would love to get a chance that I’m getting.”
The Blackhawks also are feeling very fortunate after bringing in Richards to address a longtime issue at centre right behind captain Jonathan Toews. The playmaking Richards, who has 591 career assists, could team with Kane and Saad to form one of the league’s most dangerous second lines.
“He’s in a good situation,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “Hopefully that line can be a line all year long and give us some nice production offensively and have some responsibility without (the puck). But he’s playing with some nice players. That has some upside to it, and I’m sure he’s excited about that.”
Richards faces a challenging adjustment to playing with Kane, one of the NHL’s most gifted scorers. Saad also has a unique set of skills.
Kane is “a winger but he plays a little bit like a centre man, where he wants the puck a lot,” said Richards, who lives in the same building as 2013 Conn Smythe Trophy winner and rides with him to practice sometimes.
“For me, I’ll have to get used to getting open more and probably get ready for some passes that sometimes you wouldn’t get being a centre man, where you’re trying to pass. That might be a little adjustment.”
Three of Chicago’s biggest rivals in the Central Division are in the midst of a similar process.
St. Louis signed Paul Stastny to a $28 million, four-year contract in free agency. After Stastny left Colorado, the Avalanche inked Iginla to a $16 million, three-year deal on July 1. Dallas traded for Jason Spezza and signed Ales Hemsky to a three-year contract.
While Stastny had spent his entire career with Colorado, Iginla joins his fourth team since 2012. Adjusting to a new line is nothing new for the 37-year-old right wing at this point.
“The more time you get together, you get used to each other’s tendencies,” he said. “We all have certain things we like to do, our first instincts. A lot of people’s are slightly different. The more you play together, the more you can build on it.
“Sometimes, you can be a little bit ahead of the game if you’re already thinking the same way.”
Iginla and Duchene are learning more about each other’s style by holding a shooting competition in practice.
“Did that in junior and haven’t found anyone to really do that with early in my career here,” Duchene said. “He came to me and asked me if anybody ever did competitions like that. I said, ‘Yeah, let’s go, let’s do one.’ That’s been a lot of fun doing that, especially against a great shooter like that.”
Gionta began his career in New Jersey and spent five seasons in Montreal before signing a $12.75 million, three-year contract with rebuilding Buffalo in July. The Rochester, New York, native has 249 goals and 236 assists in 776 NHL games.
When it comes to getting used to a new line, Gionta said, there is no substitute for time and experience.
“You’ve got to play with guys, be around the guys,” he said. “I think the first few weeks of training camp is big. Whether it’s on or off the ice, you’ve got to kind of get with the guys, bond with them and find your way in the room.”
AP Sports Writers Pat Graham in Denver and John Wawrow in Buffalo, New York, contributed to this report.
Jay Cohen can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/jcohenap