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Tampa Bay: The home of the NHL's top rookie

Brad Richards works on getting that billboard erected.

By DAMIAN CRISTODERO

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 12, 2001


TAMPA -- This is how big Lightning center Brad Richards has become on Prince Edward Island: Two towns are calling him their own.

Richards grew up in Murray Harbor, population 350. Because he is the town's first NHL player, sales of satellite dishes and NHL programming packages have skyrocketed since he joined the Lightning.

The next town over is Murray River, home of Northumberland Arena, where Richards played peewee hockey and won a Maritimes championship when he was 14 years old.

Murray River is so proud of this, it is erecting a billboard on Main Street calling the arena "The Home of Brad Richards."

"I'll be so proud," Richards said. "It makes me realize everyone is so close to me back home and they're rooting for my career."

If things keep up, the city of Tampa may be erecting some billboards as well. The 20-year-old has made the great leap from juniors to the NHL look as easy as stepping over a blue line.

With 41 games in the books, Richards' 34 points are tied for the team lead and, heading into Thursday night's games, were 11 more than any other rookie.

He also was the rookie leader in goals (12), assists (22), power-play assists (10) and power-play points (15).

He has surpassed the 28 points his best friend, Vinny Lecavalier, put up in his rookie season. And he is in reach of Tampa Bay's rookie records of 15 goals (set by Rob Zamuner and Daymond Langkow), 29 assists (Chris Gratton) and 43 points (Zamuner).

"I haven't seen a better rookie," general manager Rick Dudley said.

It hasn't hurt that Richards has played on lines with Lecavalier and left wing Fredrik Modin, who is on pace to score 40 goals.

"I haven't seen or played against any other rookie the same caliber as Brad," Modin said.

Maybe that's because Tampa Bay hasn't played San Jose.

Former Hartford Whalers coach Pierre McGuire, a television analyst for TSN in Canada, said if voting were held today, he would choose Sharks goaltender Evgeni Nabokov as rookie of the year. Richards would be No. 2.

McGuire is a Richards fan. He said Richards reminds him of Blues defenseman Chris Pronger when Pronger was a raw 19-year-old Whaler.

"I see a lot of the same character traits," McGuire said. "He doesn't want to be deked, and he wants to make a difference in every game. He looks like Tampa Bay's best player, and that's high praise."

There is praise for many aspects of Richards' game. His vision of the ice is well-established. His passes go tape to tape, and he has a sneaky shot he should take more often.

He must continue to work on his defense and be more physical; his eight hits are near a team low. That should change, though, as he packs some muscle on his 6-foot-1, 185-pound body.

Coach John Tortorella said Richards already thinks like a veteran. "He's like this," Tortorella said, holding his hand palm down to signify an even keel. "He's so skilled in the way he handles himself. He doesn't get down and is very confident."

Richards said confidence waivered Saturday when coach Steve Ludzik was fired.

"I had never been through anything like that before," Richards said. "Ludzy used me really well, and I was afraid I would be used (by Tortorella) in a limited role. But I had a good talk with him, and he said nothing would change."

Wait until next season, McGuire said.

"The second year is the hardest," he said. "Ask a Scott Gomez or a Pavol Demitra. What happens the second year is people bring up your name more in team meetings. There is more a focus on you. People become aware of what you can and can't do."

The thinking is Richards will adjust.

"This kid is a very good player," McGuire said. "At the forward position, he ... is ahead of the curve."

Tonight: Lightning vs. Flyers

WHEN/WHERE: 7:30; Ice Palace, Tampa.

TV/RADIO: Sunshine; WDAE-AM 620.

THE LOWDOWN: The Flyers will be without forward -- and Lightning killer -- John LeClair (back). With 42 points (26 goals, 16 assists), LeClair is the NHL's leading scorer against Tampa Bay. F Rick Tocchet (hand) was expected to play. ... Expect Dan Cloutier to start his second straight game in goal for the Lightning. ... The Flyers will go with Roman Cechmanek, who is 7-0-3 in his past 10 starts. ... Philadelphia is unbeaten (2-0-2) in its past four games. ... The Lightning has won five of its past 20. ... Going into Thursday night's games, the Flyers' road power play was second to last in the league with a 9.7 efficiency (9-for-93). ... The Lightning is 9-6-3 at the Ice Palace. The Flyers are 8-8-6 on the road. ... The teams have split two games this season. The Flyers won 6-3 in Philadelphia. Tampa Bay won 4-3 on Dec. 28 at the Ice Palace. ... Philadelphia leads the series 23-8-6 and is 11-7-1 in Tampa. ... The Stanley Cup will be displayed at section 123 of the Ice Palace before the game. Photo opportunities are $10, with the proceeds going to the Lightning Foundation and Tampa Bay area charities.

- Compiled by Damian Cristodero.

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