Why the Los Angeles Kings Must Keep Mike Richards

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Why the Los Angeles Kings Must Keep Mike Richards
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There are no two ways about it: Mike Richards struggled in the back half of the 2013-14 regular season, only managing 14 points in the last 50 games of the campaign.

A longtime top-six pivot, he was iced as a fourth-line center for much of the Los Angeles Kings’ recent Stanley Cup run. This has led to speculation about a compliance buyout in the offseason.

The Hockey News’ Ken Campbell mused on the notion in early June. TSN.ca’s Darren Dreger suggested roughly a week later that the Kings don't intend on buying out Richards’ contract, but the 29-year-old will seek a more significant role next season. His desire for a spot higher on the depth chart may conflict with the team’s designs.

As Dreger wrote, “This could get very interesting.”

Seeing as 48 hours have elapsed since the conclusion of the Stanley Cup Final, NHL clubs can now use their remaining amnesty buyouts.

That window will close on June 30 and won't open again in the foreseeable future—regular buyouts will remain available, but those which don’t count against the salary cap will not—hence the rumors surrounding Richards.

Despite all this hubbub, L.A. letting him go is quite an unlikely scenario. Moreover, it would be a foolish one for general manager Dean Lombardi and the front office to even contemplate.

While his hefty cap hit of $5.75 million per year is one reason to justify the possibility, the reasons to keep him on board completely overshadow it.

 

Unparalleled, Sustainable Center Depth

Rich Lam/Getty Images

As I touched on in March and then during the Western Conference Final against Chicago, L.A.’s foremost strength is its balance down the middle.

In terms of three-zone play, no team in the NHL can rival the Kings’ stable of centers.

Head coach Darryl Sutter’s men typically play a diligent game that demands more of its pivots than any system in the world. Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter and Richards proved up to the task in the playoffs, wearing down the opposition with their ability to control the play at both ends of the rink.

Jarret Stoll, for his part, was a terrific bolt of energy, perpetually throwing checks, blocking shots and taking crucial faceoffs on the third line.

L.A.’s current center depth is the stuff of dynasties.

This is no exaggeration. Kopitar is an elite two-way force, Carter’s speed, reach and shot are terrifying for defenders, Richards is a jack-of-all-trades who elevates his level in the playoffs and Stoll is the ultimate glue guy.

Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

They can win by playing any brand of hockey they encounter. If opponents shut one or two of these pivots down at a time, there’s always at least another legitimate threat to deal with.

The team’s core can easily be retained too, as Richards, Carter, Jonathan Quick, Dustin Brown, Drew Doughty and Slava Voynov are already locked into long-term deals.

James Mirtle of The Globe and Mail reports that next year’s cap will hover around $69.6 millionperhaps higher than that due to the league’s massive Canadian television deal—which is up from its previous mark of $64.3 million.

Assuming that figure sticks, the Kings would have $11.63 million of space to work with this summer.

The main priorities are to re-sign Marian Gaborik and decide the fates of unrestricted free agents Matt Greene and Willie Mitchell.

In all likelihood, only one of the two blueliners will return next season. The former has more value to other clubs than to L.A. as an experienced defenseman, whereas the latter was running on fumes late in the year and may opt to hang up his skates at the summit of the sport.

Gaborik, for his part, should command an annual average salary of $5-6 million.

There's more than enough room to retain the sniper as well as one UFA defenseman, with Brayden McNabb or Andrew Bodnarchuk filling the other gap. The Kings could also choose to bring back one of Jeff Schultz or Andrew Campbell on a modest free-agent contract.

A couple of years from now, when Kopitar and youngsters such as Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson will require new deals, the cap will have conceivably risen once more.

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Granted, $5.75 million per year is pricey at present for a fourth-liner, but anyone who actually watched the games is aware that Richards was never deployed as a bottom-line player. He averaged 15 minutes and 32 seconds per contest in the postseason and saw a regular shift on both the power play and penalty kill.

When games hung in the balance, Sutter would often send Richards out there.

Though the demotion was originally a motivational ploy, it evolved into a luxury most franchises couldn’t dream of: a second-line, battle-tested talent instantly legitimizing a lesser unit without sacrificing the top six's productivity.

It was too much for anyone to handle, as the Kings scrapped a path to a second Stanley Cup in three seasons on the back of their myriad sources of offense.

Furthermore, if Richards does indeed remain in L.A., he’ll probably be slotted into the third line alongside Justin Williams and Dwight King.

Richards and the 2014 Conn Smythe Trophy winner demonstrated phenomenal chemistry together, and one has to imagine they were only kept apart due to an if-it-ain’t-broke philosophy in the pressure cooker of the playoffs.

The offseason will provide the leeway to tinker with the roster and maximize its potential.

Yes, the Kings could be even better in 2014-15.

Richards is simply too qualified for a fourth-line spot and would receive little support from the likes of Trevor Lewis.

Meanwhile, Stoll is serviceable on the third line, but he doesn’t possess the ability to turn the unit into a dominant group.

With an offseason to improve his conditioningRichards' fitness level was nowhere near where it should have been in 2013-14and develop a stronger rapport with Williams, the Kings would be provided with a second, well, second line of sorts.

This approach would also afford Richards his first full year in L.A. without Carter on his wing.

As natural centers, the two never meshed well defensively and were out of sync offensively later in their partnership. A fresh start with genuine wingers by his side would do wonders for Richards in every zone.

Fortifying its presence in the middle of the ice could set the team on a path to the NHL’s first repeat since Detroit’s back-to-back championships in 1997 and 1998.

 

Leadership

Dave Sandford/Getty Images

There’s a reason every rookie called up to the Kings starts on Richards’ line. There’s a reason Sutter trusts him in crunch time. There’s a reason winning follows him everywhere he goes (Memorial Cup, World Junior gold medal, Calder Cup, Olympic gold medal, two Stanley Cups).

He plays the right way. Despite his talent, his game is unquestionably about will over skill.

Though wear and tear on his body doesn’t allow him to govern 200 feet of ice like he did in Philadelphia anymore, his drive and natural instincts are special.

He’s a leader by exampleone of those rare breeds who hates to lose more than he loves to win.

Just take a look at his final shift in a Flyers uniform for proof:

Down 4-1 in the third period of an Eastern Conference semifinal matchup Philly was trailing 3-0and with a nagging wrist injury that would require surgery in the offseasonRichards dives in front of Shawn Thornton to prevent an empty-net goal. The rest of his teammates, however, are all too ready to hit the golf course.

There’s just no quit in this player.

Richards demonstrated that he still possesses those guts in the 2013-14 postseason.

In Game 4 of the team’s quarterfinal clash with the San Jose Sharks, he displays stellar hand-eye coordination to tap down a Jake Muzzin pass before crashing the net to facilitate Williams’ power-play tally.

He isn’t credited with the goal, but his grit and desire are irrepressible:

In Game 1 of the Anaheim series, he simply wants the puck more than Ducks captain Ryan Getzlaf does along the wall, sending it on net for Gaborik to pot the tying marker with seven seconds left in regulation:

In Game 7 of that same matchup, Richards’ competitive spirit puts Anaheim’s defensemen to shame, as he craftily lifts Cam Fowler’s stick before barreling through the slot for a rebound goal:

He would not be denied.

In every big game L.A. faced this year—as it happens, games during which he was split up from Lewishe was one of the alpha males.

“He arrives at every part of the ice in ill humor. He doesn’t give anyone an inch out there, no matter who they are,” former linemate Dustin Penner told reporters about Richards.

Beyond the killer instinct, Richards’ impact is felt in less-heralded areas.

He’s still a stout defender with one of the most active sticks in the league, he’s a brilliant penalty-killer, he’s solid at the dot (53.9 percent in the most recent playoffs), he always supports his teammates positionally and he’ll lay his body on the line in service of the squad.

He gives you everything he has. Even if concussions have ensured that’s not as much as it once was, it’s a trait that rubs off on those around him and is vital in the yearly war to hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup.

Instead of rah-rah bluster, Richards offers a rare commodity in today’s NHL: true-blue, heart-and-soul leadership.

 

Proven Success

Juan Ocampo/Getty Images

In the three years since the Kings acquired Richards, they’ve won two championships and reached three conference finals. The one season that didn’t result in a Stanley Cup saw L.A. besieged by injuries to Doughty, Brown, Richards, Williams, Stoll, Mitchell and Greene.

In other words, in that time frame, no team has been able to defeat L.A. when it was even remotely healthy.

That’s quite a far cry from picking second overall in the 2008 draft.

If there was a culture-changing moment to identify in this journey, it was Game 1 of the first round in 2012. Matched up against the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Vancouver Canucks, the Kings were, nevertheless, viewed as a team no one wished to face in the playoffs.

Richards was the catalyst in demonstrating why that is, registering three points and grinding supposed peer Ryan Kesler into the chasm that separates the men from the boys.

According to The National Post’s Iain MacIntyre, Canucks head coach Alain Vigneault wasn't pleased with that head-to-head tilt between the two-way stalwarts:

“I’m not sure I like that matchup. I’m going to think about that.

[Wednesday] night’s game, [Richards] was a force on the ice and we’re going to need to do a better job. He made some solid plays with the puck and he was real physical in certain areas of the ice. We’re going to need to address that.”

Think about this for a moment: Kesler’s coach is considering moving his Selke Trophy winner — in theory, the best checking forward in the NHL — away from Richards.

While Richards’ overall game was a masterclass in gritty, three-zone hockey, the seminal play in Kings history occurred in the dying seconds.

With the Vancouver net empty for an extra attacker, the Canucks look to carve their way into L.A. territory. Instead of backing off to merely hold the defensive blue line, as most would in this situation, Richards goes on the offensive and unloads on Alex Burrowsright in front of Vigneault’s men:

Don’t think for a second that Richards wasn’t aware of the circumstances. Given the timing and location, this was as pure and emphatic a you-shall-not-pass statement as one could have possibly delivered. “The Cup goes through me.”

The Kings haven’t looked back since.

With him in the fold, their forward ranks strike an impeccable, indomitable balance. Brown hits like a freight train but sometimes lacks a punch in the trenches. Carter can skate and shoot with the best of them but sometimes needs a cutting edge by his side. Williams is a terrific playoff producer, but there’s more to clutch hockey than points. Kopitar is cool as ice, but sometimes you need a healthy dose of fire.

Richards is a perfect foil to these central figures up front. He’s by no means the best player on the roster, but he’s a critical piece of the puzzle.

The Kings have played an NHL-record 64 playoff games in the past three seasons. They’ve climbed to the sport’s peak on two separate occasions, and those championships represent the only two this franchise has ever taken home. They’re as close to dynasty status as any club in the world.

Is it a happy coincidence that this remarkable stretch has dovetailed with Richards’ presence in Los Angeles?

The NHL’s consummate winner brings a hunger, a swagger, a refusal to lose to a city that wasn’t accustomed to winning gameslet alone Cupsuntil he arrived. He's an out-and-out gamer, a predator. He was the best player on the ice in both of L.A.'s recent Stanley Cup Final appearances.

Some will claim that the Kings literally cannot afford to keep him. In truth, with their championship window open right now and his track record of delivering when it counts, they can’t afford not to.

 

Salary-cap, contract and buyout information courtesy of CapGeek.com.

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