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Is Brad Richards the new<br> Ilya Kovalchuk?</br>

Tom Hicks's sports empire, past and present, is in the news daily. He, along with former Montreal Canadiens' owner George Gillett divested themselves of their ill-advised investment in the Liverpool soccer team. Those lovable losers, the Texas Rangers, finally won a playoff series this past week and as a reward, get to host the New York Yankees for the American League crown and a chance to play in the World Series.

And over in the NHL, the once free-spending Dallas Stars - currently on the market, but with no closing deal or date in sight - have been forced to borrow a page from the Nashville Predators/Phoenix Coyotes' operating manual and are now trying to win on the cheap.

So far so good too - three wins in a row to start the season, putting them into that heady Toronto Maple Leafs territory.

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Still, the downside of operating with the NHL's 20th highest payroll is that usually, you need to make difficult choices when it comes to re-signing top players and in the Stars' case, that offers up the question, what will they do with Brad Richards?

Richards is the $7.8-million per year player, signed to a five-year contract that expires following this season, by his former team, the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Lightning gave Richards that generous extension in the first post-lockout season, when everybody was still trying to figure out this new salary cap thingy (some still are). Richards's contract eventually turned out to be too high for the 70, 62 and 48 point seasons he put up in the second, third and fourth years after the lockout ended. Eventually, Tampa handed him off to the Stars, back when they were still spending to the limit. Happily for Richards, he revitalized his career last season (91 points to finish seventh overall in the NHL scoring race) just in time to cash in once again at the bargaining table.

Only problem is, Dallas is no longer in position to offer what will be market value for a player that also produced a fast seven points in his first three games of the new season and at the age of 30, looks as if his career is nicely back on the rails.

So what to do? And more to the point, does Richards become in 2010-11 what Ilya Kovalchuk was last year - the most attractive potential unrestricted free agent out there?

You can be sure that Stars' general manager Joe Nieuwendyk is already exploring the parameters of a new contract with Richards's agents, so he knows exactly how things stand. You can be just as sure that if the Stars' ownership issues linger and Nieuwendyk's budget stays where it is, no amount of hometown discount is going to get a deal done.

So you have a situation where the Stars, even matter if their start is real, may look to dealing him at the trade deadline to max their potential return on Richards. The Stars might have been able to afford Richards if he'd settled in as a 70-point player. At 90 or more, and what could be another year in the top 10 in scoring? Probably not.

MORE FROM THE STARS: Nieuwendyk gave a pretty good idea of what's important for the franchise going forward when he appointed childhood buddy Gary Roberts as the team's player development consultant. Translation: Dallas's days of wading into the free-agent market and loading up on expensive players is over. The future lies in developing the next generation within - James Neal, Loui Eriksson, Jamie Benn and others. Neal worked with Roberts this past summer, as did the Tampa Bay Lightning's Steven Stamkos, who is off to another fabulous start and gives Roberts much of the credit for teaching him what it takes to be a pro. Sometimes, a hire like this smacks of nepotism, but in this case, it looks as if the Stars got ahead of the curve. For whatever reason, Roberts's knowledge of fitness and nutrition - and his willingness to pass it on - strikes a chord with a new generation of NHL players. Roberts learned those lessons the hard way: He'd actually retired in Calgary after two neck operations, but eventually returned to play. According to the Stars, Roberts will be working with the team's young players at every level in the organization, from the NHL on down. Nieuwendyk said it: "Gary went through a lot in his years in the NHL ... He'll help our young players understand what it takes to be a true professional."

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THE DEVILS YOU SAY: The Devils and Stars played a memorable Stanley Cup final back in 2000 and it's interesting to see how the roles have reversed. Then, the Devils were the model of fiscal prudence, the Stars the high rollers. Now Dallas is counting pennies and New Jersey lavishes money on any and all players and when boxed into a salary-cap corner, as they were earlier this week, find a way of turning bad news into good. The bad: That Brian Rolston required sports hernia surgery and will miss up to six weeks. The good: Rolston's injury freed up more than $5-million in cap space because the injury was serious enough for him to go on the long-term injured reserve list. Presto: The Devils immediately call up three players from their minor-league system and suddenly have a full roster again, after playing with 15 earlier in the week. Convenient? Maybe. Rolston is a highly respected vet, but his salary - which featured a no-move clause - was considered the biggest anchor in the Devils' payroll. No. 2 would probably be Bryce Salvador's $2.9-million. As it happens, Salvador is also on the long-time IR list, after he suffered a concussion in the preseason.

CHI TOWN: Marian Hossa is off to a great start with the Blackhawks, even if the defending champions are not (only one win in their first four games). Signed as a free agent two summers ago, Hossa was a responsible player for them last year, but at $63.3-million for 12 years, they were expecting superstar performance. They are getting that this year; it looks as if he is developing good chemistry on the team's new No. 1 line with Jonathan Toews and Tomas Kopecky, who is getting some of those Dustin Byfuglien minutes and making the most of them, with four points in his first four games.

THE MULE GOES DOWN: They call Johan Franzen the Mule because is he tough like one, but nobody has had a harder time staying healthy these past two years. Franzen played only 27 regular-season games a year ago after enduring a major knee operation, but rebounded for an eye-popping 18 points in 12 playoff games. This year, he was off to a good start again, until he got elbowed in the face by the Stars' Mark Fistric in the Red Wings' 4-1 loss to Dallas. Franzen thought he'd suffered a concussion; Detroit wanted him to see a doctor before they made the verdict official, but either way, it was not how the 30-year-old on the lifetime contract wanted to start the new season.

THE BERTUZZI WATCH: Once upon a time, Todd Bertuzzi's name could be found among the NHL scoring leaders, back in his prime days with the Vancouver Canucks. Well guess what? One week into the season, Bertuzzi was tied for third overall in the scoring race, with Hossa and Steve Stamkos. Not that will necessarily last, but after three consecutive years of 40, 44 and 44 points, Bertuzzi looks as if the fit in Detroit suits him perfectly. Coach Mike Babcock is always shuffling the deck, but Bertuzzi usually lands on a scoring line. His assist on Niklas Kronwall's goal in garbage time the other night against the Stars was the 400th of his NHL career.

MEANWHILE BACK AT THE RANCH: Bertuzzi played a year in Calgary, Mike Keenan's last year with the Flames, before shuffling off to Detroit. Calgary wanted a new look under Brent Sutter and now, three games into Sutter's second year, the team is 1-2, not getting any production from the top line, and looking for a little redemption Saturday night against an Edmonton Oilers team that spanked them on opening night. The Flames got one player back from IR when ex-Leaf Matt Stajan made his first appearance of the season in a 3-0 loss to the Florida Panthers, but he wasn't the answer either. That new skating style is still difficult to detect in Calgary. Florida, on the other hand, looked good. The Panthers completed a 1-2 Western Canada road trip that, with a little luck and better finish around the net, could have been 3-0. The Panthers are young, quick and anonymous, except for one quirky line that seems to be getting the job done for them - Cory Stillman, Radek Dvorak and Marty Reasoner, who were the difference makers against Calgary. Reasoner took a particularly circuitous path to get to south Florida. He played in Atlanta last year; went to Chicago briefly to offset salary in the deal that saw Dustin Byfuglien, Ben Eager, Brent Sopel and Akim Aliu land with the Thrashers; and then was dealt to Florida and ex-Hawk GM Dale Tallon for Jeff Taffe. After scoring just 17 points in 80 games last year, Reasoner has four in his first three for the Panthers.

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