TAMPA — Ask Marc Crawford to describe what makes Brad Richards so good, and the Stars coach sounds as if he is reading from a prepared list.
"Very gifted offensively; a very creative mind. He's a terrific play-maker; sees the ice real well. He can see like a quarterback the second and third options that are available. He has tremendous vision, and he's got great hands to go with it."
"He has a great shot."
Crawford could have added that Dallas' star center is playing at his highest level since the Lightning traded him to the Stars in February 2008.
Richards entered Sunday tied for the league lead with nine points, seven assists and at plus-7. For the first time in two years he is completely healthy, and the Stars, who face Tampa Bay tonight at the St. Pete Times Forum, are 4-0-0.
"I'm having a great time here," Richards said. "I'm probably in the best shape of my life. I just feel great."
That said, Richards, 30, and Tampa never really broke ties.
He still has a house on Davis Islands, where he spends part of the summer, and he trains in the offseason at Saddlebrook Resort in Wesley Chapel.
There also is no forgetting what he meant during the Lightning's 2004 Stanley Cup run, when, with seven winning goals, he was awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP.
Perhaps that is why there is still some bitterness in his voice when he talks about how his time in Tampa ended.
Richards was traded under the watch of prospective owners Oren Koules and Len Barrie, who, though they had not yet bought the team, were allowed by then-owner Palace Sports & Entertainment to have input into its February 2008 trade deadline business.
Richards, dealt for goalie Mike Smith and forwards Jeff Halpern and Jussi Jokinen, declined to address that specifically, but he called the way it all played out "a debacle," and the way the team was being run "weird and unprofessional."
"It was a frustrating time in my career," he added, "because I didn't think it had to happen that way."
Then came the injuries: a broken right wrist, then a fractured left wrist for which he needed surgery in March 2009. And another surgery around the same time for a shoulder problem. The result: just 48 points in 56 games for the Stars in 2008-09.
More surgery in April repaired a hip labrum tear.
Even with the painful joint, Richards rebounded with 91 points last season, seventh in the league, and has benefited from playing consistently with linemates Loui Eriksson and James Neal, whom he called "great young players who are getting better every day."
"It feels like it did back in the early days of Tampa when I knew every year I'd be playing with Marty (St. Louis) and (Fredrik Modin)," Richards said.
Richards also is getting some much-deserved recognition, and at the right time. With the five-year, $39 million deal he signed with the Lightning in May 2006 ending after this season, Canada's Globe and Mail said Richards might be "the most attractive potential unrestricted free agent out there."
"The fact of the matter is he gets it done," said Lightning captain Vinny Lecavalier, one of Richards' best friends. "He's got great vision. He's a great passer."
Sounds like Lecavalier was reading from Crawford's list.
VINNY UPDATE: Lecavalier, who during Saturday's 6-0 loss to the Panthers took a slap shot off the first knuckle of his right hand, continued to have soreness Sunday, the team said, though no further testing was done. His playing status against the Stars will be determined today.