Remembering Stephane Richer as a New Jersey Devil

In writing yesterday's post on the trouble with great players, many former Devils came to mind.  I didn't write it with one specific player in mind.  It was about general concept of how new players or players on the team inevitably get compared to great players when they're gone - regardless of how great they are on their own.   While thinking about the past, my mind wandered to the 1995 Stanley Cup winning squad.  Martin Brodeur, Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer, and Ken Daneyko were immediately remembered.  So did Claude Lemieux, the super-pest that scored 13 goals and earned the Conn Smythe that year, and John MacLean, who was one of the team's top forwards for several years.  The Crash Line wasn't forgotten, as Randy McKay, Bobby Holik, and Mike Peluso punished fourth lines and made opposing coaches sweat since they could play a little hockey too.   

Then I recalled #44, Stephane Richer.  I remembered that he was good, but it wasn't until I looked up his numbers that I realized how good he really was for New Jersey.  I knew he came over from Montreal, but I didn't know he was a big-time scorer for the Canadiens in the late 1980s.  To this day, he's still the most recent Canadien player to have scored 50 or more goals in a season - he scored 51 in the 1989-90 season.   He was big, he was swift, he had a very powerful shot, and he simply oozed offensive skill.  Yet, this and other facts about his first time as a Devil (his second isn't really worth going over) seemed .

Most summaries of Richer's career focused on his time in Montreal. For example, look at his entry at Legends of Hockey, a Hockey Hall of Fame and NHLPA sponsored site.  This is all that was written for his time with the Devils:

In 1991, the Canadiens decided to go with Kirk Muller, using Richer as collateral to be sent to the Devils. In New Jersey, Richer continued to be a solid offensive performer over the five seasons that followed.  In 1995, he again made his return to the winner's circle as the Devils won their first-ever Stanley Cup.

That's it.  I know it's a short biography of the player, but even I feel Richer deserves much more than just two sentences. While I've admitted my ignorance, some fans loved #44 back in the day.  Let's find out why.  Therefore, I dug a little deeper and I've shared what I found about Richer's time as a New Jersey Devil after the jump.

Before New Jersey

Richer was drafted by the Montreal Canadiens in the second round of the 1984 NHL Draft as noted here at Hockey Draft Central.  He spent one season in major junior - Granby - before he became a regular NHL player.  At age 19, Richer showcased his offensive talent early with 21 goals, 16 assists, and a surprisingly high 18.8% shooting percentage.  As shown here at Hockey-Reference, Richer scored at least 20 goals per season, topping 50 twice, in his 6 with Montreal.  The worst he ever shot in a season was 11.6 - and he still managed to score 25 goals.   The entry at Legends of Hockey describes what he brought to the table and what struggles he had:

His excellent skating ability, his refusal to be intimidated, his size and strength and his cannon-like shot with the lightning quick release were all harmonized under one helmet. ...

..., he often found himself embroiled in controversy and under criticism for not being committed to play his best every night. He was rumoured to be feuding with coach Pat Burns. He was frequently beset by injuries. In sum, as often as Richer could excite and satisfy fans, he could also disappoint them with off-ice distractions.

I'm not sure if the latter had anything to do with it, but Montreal decided to trade their scoring winger in 1991.  Richer and Tom Chorske (an utility checking forward, though he had a good 1993-94 campaign) went to the Devils in exchange for Kirk Muller and Roland Melanson. 

Muller would turn out to be an instant success with Montreal, his apex came in 1992-93.  Melanson never amounted to much at the NHL.   If there were as much communication available for hockey fans in the early 90s as we have now, then we may have been spitting fire over Muller being traded and succeeding so well at first for Monreal.  I have to emphasize may because Richer was doing quite well for himself as a Devil.

Richer's First Devils Tenure: 1991-1996

Stephanericher_regseason

Richer was in the prime of his career as a New Jersey Devil.  He would not be as productive as he was in the late 1980s. As you'll notice from the shooting percentages, he came down to Earth and wasn't busting out 18-19% seasons like he did in Montreal.  Therefore, Devils fans got a two-time 50 goal scorer who did not score 50 goals - and would never do so again.

Nonetheless, he was an offensive leader for the Devils and made an instant impact.  In his first season as a Devil, he finished second in goals and scoring behind Claude Lemieux (41 G, . In 92-93, he led the Devils with 38 goals and finished third in points behind Lemieux (30 G, 81 Pts.) and one-season wonder Alexander Semak (37 G, 79 Pts.).  In 93-94, Richer finished second in goals behind MacLean (37 G) and second in points behind Stevens (78 Pts.).  In the lockout-shortened season of 1995, he was the team leader in goals and points by far.   His final season with the Devils before a short spell in 2002 represented a season gone wrong.  His percentage dropped like an anvil over a cliff, his production went with it, and eventually, his usefulness to the team. Still, he managed to keep his personal streak of 20+ goals per season alive.   All told, Richer was a scorer in New Jersey, particularly at even strength.  He just didn't reach the massive heights he set in Montreal, that's all.

Stephanericher_playoffs

In the playoffs, Richer didn't wither.  While 1992 and 1993 didn't go too well for the team, it wasn't because Richer didn't do anything.  He became more prominent in that infamous 1994 playoff run, tying Lemieux for the team lead in playoff goals and finishing fourth in points.   Richer was at his best in 1995.  I actually forgot this, but Richer led the Devils in scoring in that Stanley Cup winning campaign.  Not Lemieux, who had all of the goals while shadowing the other team's best player, but Richer.   What was impressive that he was almost playing a different role than usual. For much of his career, he's been a goal scorer - the guy who finished the plays with his shot and release.  In the 1995 playoffs, Richer was a creator of goals - and it worked quite well. 

While he may not have stood out in my mind from 1995, the fans and the media certainly loved him in that year. The Hockey Draft Central entry did note that Richer was named the Fan Club's Player of the Year, a fan vote awarded him MVP through SportsChannel, and the media voted him MVP of the team.  I guess without subsequent hardware beyond the Cup plus a down 95-96 season and being traded after that season, he's not as memorable as Lemieux or Stevens or MacLean or others in my mind.  That's kind of dumb on my part.  Let's move on, anyway.

By the numbers alone, Richer did quite well as a Devil.     Richer also managed to answer some of the criticism he faced in Montreal in the process.  First, he stayed relatively healthy  His page at Hockey Draft Central lists all the injuries that he had in those five seasons, I counted 10 of them, and they were all relatively minor. After all, Richer played at least 73 games in every full season with the Devils (and he only missed 3 in the lockout-shortened 94-95 season).   Second, I'm not seeing too much evidence that Richer didn't play his best every night.   While those seasons were a long time ago, Richer certainly showed up in the postseason and was a regular scorer until 1995-96.  If I had a better memory or better records, then that could be possible; but I'm skeptical of that claim.  How do you score this much and still be called lazy, I do not know.  I can't speak to whether he really feuded with Pat Burns or anyone else, either.   Still, I think his first four seasons with the Devils speaks against some of the narrative that surrounded him earlier in his career.

That all said, video does a better job in some ways at showcasing Richer's talent.  Let's watch a few.

Putting aside the fact the Devils were hilariously offside, this is one of the most impressive goals Richer ever scored. He stops and then proceeds to torch not one, but two defenseman en route to a backhand goal.  This was what Stephane Richer could do at times - simply amaze people.

At 1:21, an example of Richer's heavy shot at work.  Slapshot from the sideboards to start a power play, and it's too much for Mike Vernon to handle. Oh, this was the first goal of the Stanley Cup Finals. Surely, Detroit turned it around after this (spoiler: they didn't).  Aside: Watch this from the beginning to see that Richer was on a line with Bobby Carpenter and Lemieux in the playoffs, and evidence that Kris Draper was a jerk who hurt his team.

This wasn't pretty as much as it was important.  The above would be Richer's 50th playoff goal of his career and an equalizer in Game 6 against the Flyers in the 1995 Eastern Conference Finals.  The Devils would go on to win that game 4-2 and go see Detroit in the Finals.  P.S. The Flyers coach who looked like he watched a truck hit his dog after Richer's goal was Terry Murray.

Lastly, here's an example of Richer involved on defense in an important situation: the final minute with a one-goal lead in a Stanley Cup Final game.  Richer will eventually intercept a bad pass by a Red Wing and ice it with an empty-net goal; but the important thing here is that in this incredibly important situation, Jacques Lemaire wanted Richer and Lemieux on the ice. They were more than just offensive players in NJ, and this video justifies that notion.

How Richer Left New Jersey; After 1996

Stephane Richer was traded back to the Montreal Canadiens in the summer of 1996.  The Devils got defensive defenseman Lyle Odelein in return.  In this New York Times article by Jason Diamos, the reasons behind the trade were revealed. Richer wasn't happy in New Jersey and he wanted to return to Montreal. Richer wasn't very consistent in 96-97, so Lou had no problems obliging with his request.   The article also has two other items of note. First, it was written in August. Yep, the Devils traded Richer in the dead of the offseason and got a NHL player.  At least, I think that's interesting.  Second, it was one of the rare examples of Lou openly discussing that he was interested in another player.  At the time, this trade was seen as a possible precursor for another move to bring in Jeremy Roenick to New Jersey.  That didn't happen, as we know now.

In conjunction with other moves made earlier (e.g. the departure of Claude Lemieux), the Devils would be devoid of a player with Richer's offensive talents for a few seasons.   I would go as far to say that it wasn't until Patrik Elias broke out in 1999-2000 that the Devils had a player remotely like Richer when it came to goal production and offensive skill.  It definitely wasn't until Alexander Mogilny was acquired in 2000 that the Devils had a guy who could shoot as well as or better than Richer in my opinion.   While the Devils got back to regular season success; having a player with some of Richer's skill would have been very useful in retrospect.

Yet, the Devils were wise in retrospect to deal Richer away.  While he was able to go back to where he wanted, he didn't last long. He had an OK 1996-97 season; suffered from injuries in 1997-98 and was part of a multi-player trade to Tampa Bay in January 1998.  Richer's days of being a primary scorer were over and he settled as a two-way winger for the rest of his career with reduced production.  He bounced around the league and eventually ended up back in New Jersey at the 2002 trade deadline from Pittsburgh, in exchange for a seventh round pick.  Richer played 10 regular season games with limited minutes, scored 1 goal, acquired 2 assists, and played in only 3 of the team's 6 playoff games with no points.  He called it a career.

Throughout his lengthy career, Richer battled clinical depression. One of the earlier public statements I found of Richer discussing this problem comes from this 2001 article by Damien Cristodero at the St. Pete's Times. He mentioned how he thought about killing himself, how he realized he needed to seek professional help. Thankfully, he did so instead of driving a car into a barrier.  As noted in Cristodero's article, Richer was dealing with this his whole life.  Perhaps this would explain some of his perceived on-ice struggles on top of some of the off-ice distractions.  It's great that he did sought out the help he needed.  He hasn't been exactly shy about it, according to this article in The Hockey News by Adam Proteau, he did a special on Off the Record with Michael Landsberg about the subject of depression.

Conclusion

The record shows that Richer had very good NHL career and Devils fans should appreciate what he did from 1991-92 through 1994-95.  While 95-96 wasn't as good for him - much less the entire team - he should be remembered as an offensive forward who was an important part in the creation of a contender and ultimately a big part of the team's 1995 Stanley Cup win.   He wasn't readily replaced, and it took some time before the Devils had a forward who had some of the skills Richer (or Lemieux or MacLean) brought to the table.  I'm sorry that I forgot how much he did, what kind of player he was, and how productive he was in his heyday.   After this, I can easily see why some Devils fans revere the only player to have worn #44 in New Jersey.

What do you remember the most about Stephane Richer? What are your favorite memories of the player? Out of this post, what stuck out to you the most?  Did I miss anything?  Please leave your answers and other comments about Stephane Richer in the comments. Thanks for reading.

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