Blossoming Richard leading high-flying Admirals

Photo: Scott Paulus

by Jason Karnosky | AHL On The Beat

Two years ago Anthony Richard’s dream of playing in the National Hockey League seemed about as far away as a distant galaxy.

The Trois-Rivieres, Quebec, native, still just 19 years old, faced an assignment to the ECHL. It was hardly something a player who finished in the top 15 in scoring in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League in the previous two years was anticipating when he turned professional. Especially with how highly he was thought of by the Nashville Predators, who selected Richard with the 100th overall pick of the 2015 NHL Draft.

“My first year as a professional was very hard for me,” Richard said. “When you get sent down to ECHL, it’s not the option that you want as a player. You always want to be playing at the highest level. But if I look back at that time now it was pretty good for me, and it made me a stronger player and person mentally.”

Richard is now in his third professional season, and few players have enjoyed a more successful developmental track. He currently leads all Milwaukee Admirals forwards with eight goals and 12 points this season.

“Anthony is probably one of the faster players in the American league,” said Admirals head coach Karl Taylor of his budding star. “He’s got a great first step and breakaway speed, and we try to use that as much as we can to our advantage. He has eight goals in 20 games so far and he’s been real good in the shootout as well.”

Richard’s impressive growth might be viewed as a surprise to anyone watching the then 2016-17 American Hockey League rookie, but it’s not to his coaches and his organization. When the Predators selected Richard in the fourth round in the summer of 2015, they were banking on a player who featured speed to burn during his four years with Val-d’Or in the QMJHL.

However, his first junior season was hardly an omen of things to come. Richard managed just eight points in 42 games in 2012-13. But he continued to develop under the guidance of Val-d’Or coach Mario Durocher, and the following season Richard contributed 25 goals and 52 points, and added another 10 goals in the playoffs as the Foreurs won the league title in 2014.

“Playing at Val-d’Or was very good experience for me,” Richard said. “We won a league championship in my second year and I was very fortunate to play with a group of guys that were very good. I played with Anthony Mantha, who is now with the Detroit Red Wings, and he was a very good guy. It was nice to play on good teams and I was there at the right time.”

In 2014-15 Richard racked up 43 goals and 91 points, leading his squad in both goals in points. After being drafted by the Predators that summer, Richard completes his junior career with 87 points while showing vastly improved two-way play.

Photo: Scott Paulus

Despite all of that promise Richard found the transition to AHL play difficult. As just a 19-year-old he put up just 16 points in 55 games for Milwaukee during the 2016-17 campaign. He also endured that five-game stint in Cincinnati.

“I coached in that league for six years, so I’m familiar with play in the ECHL,” Taylor said. “Early on in Richie’s career there wasn’t always room for him in Milwaukee, so he went down and that helped get his confidence to where it needed to be. He came back here and started to do the things he’s doing now. It’s all about how you handle that adversity, and he’s handled it well.”

Working under the tutelage of then-Admirals coaches Dean Evason, Stan Drulia and Scott Ford, Richard progressed from his team’s 16th-leading scorer as a rookie to its sixth-leading scorer in 2017-18, finishing just 10 points behind team leader Emil Pettersson.

Despite his continued growth as a player last season, Richard credits time spent near the end of 2016-17, when he frequently skated with some high-end linemates, as a critical part of his development.

“After Christmas I was lucky enough to get the chance to play with Frederick Gaudreau and Mike Ribeiro, two NHL-level players,” Richard said. “They taught me a lot off the ice as well as on it.”

The other positive in Milwaukee for Richard was the franchise’s welcoming environment for French-Canadians like himself. During Richard’s time with the Admirals several French-speaking Quebec natives (mainly drafted by Predators general manager David Poile and former assistant GM Paul Fenton) dressed for the Admirals. The “Frenchy” or “French Fry” teammates of Richard included Ribeiro, Gaudreau, Alexandre Carrier, Frederic Allard, P.C. Labrie, Jimmy Oligny and Jonathan Diaby.

“It’s been nice having all of the French-Canadians that we’ve had here,” said the bilingual Richard. “My first year we had a couple of guys that really helped me adjust to the professional life off the ice and at the rink. They helped me with getting an apartment, and that was a big thing because it’s a hard living on your own at 19 or 20 years old.”

Now in his critical third professional season the 21-year-old has taken another significant leap in his play. To date Richard has three multi-point games this season, including a goal and a critical assist on teammate Rocco Grimaldi’s overtime game winner in his team’s 4-3 opening night victory at Texas.

The blazing combination of Richard and Grimaldi proved to be a matchup nightmare for Milwaukee’s opponents.

“We actually played Anthony and Rocco together for a while when Rocco was with us, which really backed teams off,” said Taylor of the lightning-fast top line. “They put a lot of pressure on the defensive corps that we played against, which is our goal in every game.”

Even without Grimaldi, Richard kept up his fast pace. He picked up first two-goal game of the season on Nov. 11 as Milwaukee waxed archrival Chicago 7-2.

“I think (Anthony) plays very similar to Rocco Grimaldi in that he’s smaller in size but very fast,” teammate Matt Donovan said. “He can use that speed to get behind the other team’s defense, get in on the forecheck and get to the puck first. He’s had a good start this year and contributed a bunch of goals for us.”

The next step for Richard is to finally get a chance to play in the NHL. With Grimaldi currently up with the Predators, Richard’s first NHL opportunity seems likely right around the corner.

“I’m looking forward to my first chance to play in the NHL, as is everybody here,” Richard said. “I’m just working hard every day, trying to work hard in every game on things like puck protection, my shooting, playing in every situation, and trying to get better defensively so I’m ready for that call-up.”