One week ago, Mike Richards was mired in a rut. He’d failed to register a point in his last six contests and appeared well on his way to hitting rock bottom.
With each passing game spent on Los Angeles’ second line alongside Jeff Carter and the revolving door at left wing, the hole grew more cavernous. There was seemingly no digging out of this one.
He—and the Kings, who had gained a mere two points from their last four games—needed a jolt.
With his squad in a dogged playoff race in the Western Conference, head coach Darryl Sutter recognized the desperate situation and resorted to an equally desperate measure: starting Richards, an established top-six talent, on the fourth line.
Not only did the bench boss wake his center from his slumber, he also—inadvertently or not—uncovered the potential for a deep, dangerous lineup with Richards lower in the depth chart.
Granted, Richards hasn’t seen a traditional fourth-liner’s minutes over the past three games.
Thanks to his prowess on special teams and jack-of-all-trades skill set, he’s been plugged into spot duty in crucial situations. The result? His ice time against the Florida Panthers, Philadelphia Flyers and Washington Capitals amounted to 14:45, 16:16 and 16:56, respectively.
He’s averaged a whisker more than 17 minutes per game on the season.
Nevertheless, the demotion on paper sent a message, and the veteran received it loud and clear. He’s notched two goals in the past three contests after only mustering nine over his previous 70.
Moreover, he’s been far more noticeable in all three zones, battling more feverishly in the corners, backchecking more diligently and creating far more opportunities on attack.
Sutter was clever in his line combinations, pairing Richards with Trevor Lewis. Any old shake-up wouldn’t work. Slotting him next to a different set of L.A.’s top-tier forwards would have perpetuated—if not exacerbated—the issue.
Richards has always thrived as the heartbeat of his line, the central figure through which play is driven.
Prior to the shuffling, the 29-year-old was a man stranded on an island. Whether his linemates weren’t built to dig in the trenches or weren’t sharing the biscuit, Richards simply wasn’t granted many touches. He was an afterthought.
Now, this isn’t to absolve him of any responsibility in his slump. He appeared disengaged half of the time and was careless in possession. He certainly should have been more assertive, looking to impose his will and clean up his execution.
With that said, it’s a coach’s job to put his players in a position to succeed. Sutter acknowledged that there were too many cooks in the second line’s kitchen and made an appropriate switch.
Lewis is a safe and reliable grinder. More importantly in this case, he has no delusions regarding his ability. He knows that his line’s best bet is to get the puck to Richards, and he did exactly that against the Panthers on Saturday.
Where Carter, Tyler Toffoli, Justin Williams, Dustin Brown or just about any other top-six-worthy King who’s suited up alongside Richards in the past might have held on to the puck for an extra second in this scenario in hopes of making an incisive play, Lewis opted for the sure thing and simply dished the puck down low to No. 10.
He let the playmaker, well, make a play.
Seconds later, the former second-line center had fired a shot through Roberto Luongo for about as confident a finish as Richards has delivered since his first year in L.A.
Confidence is the kernel here. He’s rediscovered a measure of his swagger and nasty demeanor.
He isn’t quite Richards in his Flyers prime anymore, but he’s been a peskier, angrier Richards lately. I suppose dropping two lines will do that to a player.
Thankfully, an aggravated Richards is aggravating to every other team in the NHL. There’s a reason Eastern Conference clubs were ecstatic when he was dealt to the West in 2011. He was just a pain to play against.
Before this recent turn of the tide, he appeared more indifferent than ornery. He wasn’t awful, he was...awfully quiet.
In the first period against Philly, Richards demonstrated just how effective he can be when he puts his mind to it.
With Flyers defender Mark Streit skating back to recover the puck in his end, Richards decided he wanted possession more than his counterpart, outmuscling him down low and feeding Carter for a something-out-of-nothing shot.
Early in the second period, he staved off a pair of Flyers to keep the play alive long enough for his teammates to catch up. They do eventually, a loose puck is retrieved and Richards finds Jake Muzzin for a glorious chance from the left circle.
That’s the type of impact he can have when he places himself in the thick of the action.
The additional effort has manifested itself in his advanced statistics too.
In the three-game stretch preceding the change, Time on Ice indicates that Richards’ Corsi percentage was 50.7. Since then, his line has controlled 56.9 percent of shot attempts. That's a significant leap, and given how slim the margin of victory is in the NHL, any advantage is welcome with open arms.
Furthermore, Jewels from the Crown suggests that he isn’t merely producing more shot attempts. He’s produced the most scoring chances (T/60 in the table) of any King in the past week.
Though the Kings need Richards in his groove to contend for a second Stanley Cup in three seasons, the bigger storyline might be how the success of his demotion affects the team’s forward lines.
Sutter can play him in the bottom six while granting him top-six minutes, spreading out the club’s offensive wealth and experience to transform the Kings into something of a three-headed monster in the middle of the ice, with Anze Kopitar, Carter and Richards dictating play on separate units.
There are few teams that could handle Los Angeles with these three clicking all at once.
Should Richards stay in the bottom six?
Matching up with the Kings becomes even more daunting when you consider how well Brown, Jarret Stoll and Dwight King have performed recently. As a group, they’ve combined for four goals, five assists and a plus-11 rating in the past three games.
So that trio is on fire, and then opponents must deal with lines anchored by Kopitar, Carter and a re-energized Richards—scary stuff.
While Sutter has committed his share of head-scratching mistakes—benching Alec Martinez for extended stretches, playing Jordan Nolan on the second line, etc.—his latest move has been a stroke of genius.
On the season, the Kings rank 27th in the league in goals per game at 2.38. Since the lineup tweak, they’ve potted 11 goals in three games and won them all.
As Sutter told reporters when the demotion was revealed, he was looking to provide Richards with a shot in the arm. In the process, he's also turned the apparent foible of a slumping star into a strength—offensive depth—that could push his men to the head of the class.
Whether he knew the second one was there or not, he’s killed two birds with one stone.