In his first 48 games at Minnesota Duluth, Justin Richards didn’t score a single goal.
On Thursday, the junior center and assistant captain signed a two-year, entry-level contract with the New York Rangers, becoming the third Bulldog — and second underclassman — to make the jump to the NHL.
Richards notoriously didn’t score a single goal as a freshman, but he did help solidify the Bulldogs' center position while playing in all 44 games that season. He came to UMD a year earlier than intended in 2017-18 after sophomore center Adam Johnson left the program mid-summer to sign with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Johnson was supposed to be UMD’s top-line center in 2017-18 and his departure left a gaping hole at the time. But Richards proved to be the perfect piece to the puzzle and UMD went on to win the first of back-to-back NCAA championships.
“At the time it really sucked, but I was able to learn some valuable things that year,” said Richards, who finished with nine assists as a freshman. “One being that team success is way more important than individual success. I didn’t score a goal, but we won a national championship. Obviously I’ll take a national championship over a goal any day.
“I’m really proud and happy I didn’t score a goal that year because I see the improvement that I made over the last two years at Duluth. I’m really proud of where I’ve got to.”
Richards’ first goal as a Bulldog came in his 49th collegiate game, five contests into the 2018-19 season. He scored late in the second period of a 8-2 rout of Maine at Amsoil Arena. By then a top-six forward for the Bulldogs, that was the first of 12 goals and 20 assists during his sophomore season.
The reigning back-to-back NCHC Defensive Forward of the Year put up 14 goals and 11 assists during the coronavirus-shortened 2019-20 season, scoring three shorthanded goals and assisting on another.
Richards could have turned pro after his sophomore season. He said he had a couple options last summer, but decided to come back to UMD to not chase a historic third-straight national championship and be better prepared for the NHL.
Richards said now he does feel ready to be a pro, and the Rangers presented him the best opportunity to succeed.
“The main thing I was looking for was a wonderful opportunity and with the Rangers, I felt like I had the biggest opportunity there,” he said. “The Rangers are a wonderful organization with a ton of history being an Original Six team. All that aside, New York City is a pretty great city to be in and I really wanted to experience that. Being from Columbus, which is like a mid-sized city, I want to experience what a big city would be like. I think New York is a pretty good choice.”
The 5-foot-11, 192-pound Richards, who turned 22 in March, is currently quarantined with his family in Naples, Florida. His father, Todd, is an assistant coach for the Tampa Bay Lightning, having also served as head coach of the Columbus Blue Jackets and Minnesota Wild. Todd Richards, who played at Minnesota, also played eight games in the NHL with the Hartford Whalers.
When it came time to make a decision about the next step in his hockey career, Justin Richards said his father only stepped in once he was forced to recently.
“I sat my parents down for like an hour and said, ‘None of us are getting up until I decide where I’m going to go,’ ” Justin Richards said. “It was good, he talked me through some stuff. It was very helpful, making sure that I saw the strengths and weaknesses of each place. He didn’t make a decision for me. He let me make my own decision, which is very important.”
Despite the NHL pedigree, Richards went undrafted after playing with the Ohio Blue Jackets Under-18 squad and the one season in the United States Hockey League with the Lincoln Stars. But it didn’t stop him from reaching the NHL, just as it didn’t stop his teammate Nick Wolff, an undrafted senior defenseman and UMD co-captain, who signed a one-year deal with the Boston Bruins last month.
The only other UMD underclassman to give up his senior season thus far is junior defenseman Scott Perunovich, who last week agreed to terms with the St. Louis Blues, the franchise that drafted him in the second round of the 2018 NHL Draft.
The Minnesota Wild said UMD junior Nick Swaney, a 2017 seventh-round pick, will be back with the Bulldogs in 2020-21, and the Philadelphia Flyers have said the same for UMD sophomore forward Noah Cates, a 2017 fifth-rounder.
UMD junior defenseman Dylan Samberg, a 2017 second-round pick of the Winnipeg Jets, has said his future plans remain on hold while NHL suspends play due to the COVID-19 pandemic.