LOS ANGELES — With the Los Angeles Kings back home from a five-game road trip in which they earned a solid 3-2-0 record, they now find themselves in a rather lofty position, atop the Western Conference standings and second in the overall National Hockey League standings (through games played on October 29).
As one might expect, players such as Dustin Brown, Anze Kopitar, Justin Williams, Ryan Smyth, Jarret Stoll and Jonathan Quick have played key roles in the team’s strong 7-3-0 start through ten games. But role players are making solid contributions as well, including versatile forward Brad Richardson, whose strong play has earned him a promotion to the Kings’ top line, skating alongside Brown and Kopitar.
But at the start of that five-game road swing, beginning with a 4-2 loss at Phoenix on October 21, Richardson found himself in his usual spot on the fourth line.
Little did he know that big changes were in store for him, and they came rather unexpectedly early in the second period at Colorado on October 23.
In that game, Richardson, 24, started the game on the fourth line, but Kings head coach Terry Murray, as he is wont to do, decided to tinker with his line combinations, moving Richardson up to play left wing on the first line, while moving rookie forward Andrei Loktionov down to center the fourth line.
The results were explosive for Richardson, who poured in three goals, including the game-winner, leading the Kings to a 6-4 win. Richardson scored at even strength early in the second period, added a shorthanded goal in the third period that was scored while the Kings were killing off a five-minute major power play, and, for good measure, he tallied another even strength goal late in the period to close out the scoring.
The hat trick was Richardson’s first in the NHL.
“Yeah, that was pretty fun,” said Richardson, who was selected by the Colorado Avalanche in the fifth round (163rd overall) of the 2003 National Hockey League Entry Draft, playing parts of three seasons with the Avalanche. “You don’t plan on going into a game and scoring three goals, but it was one of those nights where everything clicks, and doing it against my former team was pretty special for me, too.”
“I started on the fourth line in that game, and then [Murray] moved me up on the first line, so that was good,” added Richardson. “Obviously, that’s going to help [me] get more offensive chances.”
Murray wanted a forward who could win some loose puck battles along the boards and in the corners, as well as someone more experienced with the defensive coverage, on the first line.
“I’m sure he’s pretty happy, coming back to Colorado and getting that hat trick,” Murray told Rich Hammond of LAKingsInsider.com. “There were a lot [of hats thrown] in L.A. Probably in his house there were a few. But he earned it.”
“I made a change with the Kopitar line,” Murray explained. “I wanted a more responsible player up there in that situation, and Richardson responded. He grabbed the opportunity and then to finish it off the way he did was very rewarding for him, no question.”
Prior to that game, Richardson, who was acquired by the Kings from Colorado for a second round pick in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft on June 21, 2008, had just one assist in the first six games of the season after scoring eleven goals and adding 16 assists for 27 points in 81 games last season.
So when was the last time he scored a hat trick?
“I had a couple in the American Hockey League, and I had some [with the Owen Sound Attack of the Ontario Hockey League, a Canadian junior hockey team] as well,” Richardson reminisced. “In junior, I had a five-goal game. That was awesome.”
“It’s been awhile—a few years,” Richardson added. “It felt really good.”
Since coming to the Kings, Richardson’s role could be viewed as one that is undefined, as he has moved from one line to another, and from center to wing, as the proverbial crow flies.
But that utility role has made him a valuable commodity, as he has shown increasing ability to do the job in whatever role he has been tasked with. Despite that, one might think that given all the jumping around from one line to another and from center to wing, Richardson might struggle from having to constantly adjust his game and mindset.
“I don’t find it [to be] that bad,” he said. “I’m comfortable playing center and wing. It takes the first couple of shifts to kind of re-think what you’re doing out there, but I’ve played both positions for awhile now, so I’m happy to play either position.”
“I’ve always been a natural center,” he added. “The last few years, I’ve switched to left wing the majority of the time. But it’s good. A lot of guys are only playing one position. It’s nice that I’ve got the talent to play either role.”
“When I was younger and in junior, I was a little more offensive. I got chances to score on the power play and stuff [like that]. I’ve always tried to be hard on the puck, and play a real work ethic kind of game.”
That versatility and flexibility, both in terms of skill and attitude, helped him fit in right away with Kopitar and Brown, and that showed at Colorado.
“I played a little bit with Kopitar last year, and I played a few games with Brown last year, too,” Richardson noted. “Sometimes you throw a line together and it clicks right away and you get a few goals, but I feel comfortable playing with anyone on the team, so whatever Terry does is fine.”
Richardson’s career took a big step forward last season, following a 2008-09 season that he would probably prefer to forget.
Indeed, Richardson played in just 31 games that year, recording just five assists.
That season, Richardson suffered a foot injury that forced him to miss 22 games, and when he returned, he was unable to make much of an impact.
“That first year was kind of tough—new coach, new team,” Richardson explained. “They really didn’t know me. They hadn’t seen me play a ton, and then, I got hurt, so that was a tough situation.”
The native of Belleville, Ontario was not discouraged or deterred.
“[In his exit interview at the end of that season, Murray] told me what he thought I needed to do and I told him the kind of player I’d been before and what I thought I could bring to the team,” said Richardson. “When I came to [training] camp last year, he said, ‘you’re going to have to earn a spot.’”
“I knew I could do it,” added Richardson. “It was just a confidence thing and getting back to where I was. I put some work in that summer to get ready.”
Richardson started the season in what would become a familiar spot.
“I started on the fourth line, which was fine,” he explained. ‘I worked my way into getting to play on pretty much every line, and by the playoffs, I was on the third and second lines. It was a lot of fun.”
Perhaps the biggest reason Richardson was able to secure a spot with the Kings is because the 5-11, 192-pound forward showed that he could play bigger than his physical stature by winning loose puck battles, taking hits to make plays and dishing out hits of his own here and there…all things he was not doing in his first season with the Kings.
“Before I came here, I played a couple of seasons with Colorado,” said Richardson. “In my first NHL game, I was twenty [years of age]. Obviously, I’ve put on some more weight and I’ve matured a little more, physically, since then.”
“[But] I don’t think [my size] was the problem,” added Richardson. “It was more just getting off on the wrong foot—getting injured. It’s never easy to come back from that.”
Determination and confidence proved to be major factors in Richardson’s improvement last season.
“I wanted to prove to them that I could do the job they wanted me to do,” Richardson emphasized. “That kind of factored into it as well.”
“I think a lot of that is [also] a confidence thing,” Richardson added. “You believe in yourself more, the coaches are showing confidence in you, too. That gives you a little bit of an edge.”
“When you play pro hockey, there’s going to be some tough years, and you’re going to go through some things. But I came back last year and had a good year. It was pretty nice.”
Fast forward back to the present…although the 2010-11 season is still very, very young, Richardson is on pace to improve significantly on his 2009-10 numbers.
“It [feels good],” he said. “I had the hat trick in Colorado, but even in the games following that, I didn’t score any goals, but I could’ve easily had another three in the last couple of games. There were lots of chances, and that’s always positive. It’s just a matter of putting more of them in.”
“I definitely want to build on the numbers I had last year,” he added. “I worked hard again this summer to do that. I want to show a little more offensive side this year and keep building up my game.”
Something that has likely earned Richardson a spot on the Kings’ first line is that he is driving hard to the front of the opposition’s net with regularity, something not seen from him anywhere near as much prior to this season, and is something most of the Kings’ forwards could use some extra work on.
“That’s where the goals are scored,” said Richardson. “Brownie likes to shoot it, so anytime you can get to the net, there’s going to be some stuff laying around there for you.”
“It’s not going to happen for you every night,” added Richardson. “There’s always going to be some bounces, but the more you go [to the front of the net], that’s where people score goals.”
Can Richardson become a fixture on the first or second lines? That remains to be seen, and the odds are, at best, even. Nevertheless, that is Richardson’s goal.
“I’m working towards that,” he stressed. “I’m happy with the way it’s going so far, but you always want to keep working—you want to be the best player you can. The biggest thing is to try to keep getting better, keep working on the stuff you’re not good at or that you don’t feel as strong at. So I’m always shooting pucks, trying to do stuff where I get around the net more—where all the pucks are.”
“The thing I’m trying to focus on with the coaches is shooting the puck more, getting pucks on net and not missing the net by trying to pick corners all the time,” he added. “[By] just getting the puck on net, even if you don’t score, there’s going to be rebounds for other guys. So that’s what I’ve been working on—shooting the puck and trying to shoot it more.”
“There’s always things you can watch, things you can improve on, and try to become a better player. “Everyone wants to be the guy who scores thirty or forty goals, but you have to work a lot for that. You never know what’s going to happen. You can’t predict anything. I’m just going to keep working and see what happens.”
Raw Audio Interview with Brad Richardson (8:25; edited to remove extraneous material and dead air):
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