Producing scant offense to compensate for a slipping defensive game, Mike Richards was placed on waivers by the Los Angeles Kings on Monday. He cleared on Tuesday and will join the AHL's Manchester Monarchs.
Kings general manager Dean Lombardi has merely shuffled the roster in hopes of creating a turning point for his club.
L.A. has looked mediocre virtually all season and is 3-3-4 in its last 10 outings. A major shakeup of this sort could represent just the jolt the players—including Richards—need to deliver more complete performances.
Emphatic Statement to the Players
Though Richards’ on-ice impact has waned over the past 120 games or so, he’s a respected veteran with the kind of resume (two Stanley Cups, Calder Cup, Memorial Cup, Olympic gold, World Junior gold) players dream of building.
As such, his assignment to the AHL should wake up the rest of the Kings and announce that it’s time to get down to business.
While a bottom-liner with a top-liner’s cap hit was the sacrificial lamb, the list of underperforming players on this team isn't exactly brief:
- Anze Kopitar has been far too reliant on power-play scoring and is sporting his worst defensive numbers in ages. If the Kings are to gain a firm hold on a playoff berth, the towering pivot must rediscover his three-zone, even-strength brilliance.
- Prior to Wednesday night's three-point outburst, Jeff Carter had vanished following a scorching-hot start. Head coach Darryl Sutter deploying him in his natural center position should help his cause.
- Captain Dustin Brown has floundered over the past two-and-a-half seasons—looking active isn’t worth much when the level of activity yields little in terms of positives—and comes with an even higher cap hit and lengthier term than Richards.
- Jarret Stoll started the season as horribly as one could have imagined. Since then, he’s ridden Justin Williams’ coattails like his Kings tenure depends on it. It probably does.
- Dwight King hasn't lived up to his performance from a season ago. His puck possession and goals-for percentage have both taken considerable hits since inking a three-year, $5.85 million deal.
- Jake Muzzin has been somewhat of a liability after signing his five-year, $20 million extension. His loose puck management and ill-timed pinches have plagued the back end. On most nights this season, Drew Doughty has looked significantly better away from his usual partner.
- While Doughty has been good on the whole, he's suffered from bouts of lackadaisical play and poor discipline. After a first-period penalty on Wednesday, Rich Hammond of the Orange County Register indicated that Doughty had committed seven minor infractions in an eight-period span.
- Brayden McNabb is without question an intimidating hitter, but when it comes to coverage and decision-making, he hasn't panned out as a Willie Mitchell replacement yet.
- Matt Greene can still be serviceable as a sheltered third-pairing rearguard with some jam to his game. Unfortunately, the season has unfolded in such a manner—injuries, suspensions—that there is no hiding on the back end. His penalty-killing numbers are hideous.
That's a lot of pieces falling short of expectations.
From a team perspective, L.A. must also improve its starts. It has allowed the fifth-most first-period goals in the entire league and is ranked 20th in win percentage when the opposition opens the scoring.
Too often, the team comes out flat, going through the motions while opponents jump out to quick leads. Sutter's men can score more efficiently than ever, but compensating for their porous defense has proved exceedingly difficult.
At times, a squad that looked unflappable over the past three seasons has seemed...fragile.
Since mid-December, L.A. has seen its floodgates blown open on a few occasions. St. Louis (December 16) and Nashville (January 3) both reeled off five unanswered goals, while the New York Rangers (January 8) and New Jersey Devils (January 14) piled on four apiece.
That would have been inconceivable only a couple of months ago.
Against the Devils, L.A. appeared helpless to stop the avalanche once Steve Bernier potted a fluky tying goal:
Another area of concern is road performance. Away from Staples Center, the Kings’ 5-9-6 record is good for 27th in the league. That must be remedied in a hurry. Of their final 34 regular-season games, 21 will take place in hostile territory.
Despite the favorable schedule to this point, the club sits outside the playoff picture.
This team won't win on cruise control. It has to push harder and impose its brand of hockey on all comers.
Lombardi felt compelled to send a stern message to his group with this move. If the players don't receive it, mustering a paltry spark rather than a blaze, there may be no turning this season around.
Last Chance for Redemption
Between 2007-2008 and 2011-12, Richards was among the very finest centers in the world. He was almost certainly the most complete, assuming shutdown responsibilities, squaring off against the opposition’s top defensive pairings, averaging first-line production and hitting like a truck.
He did everything, he backed down from no one and he just wanted it more than anyone else.
Richards is no longer that player. Not even close. The 29-year-old's hard-nosed game has caught up to his 5’11” frame, and he hasn’t been the same since suffering a pair of concussions in consecutive seasons:
He’s shown glimpses to suggest that he’s capable of bouncing back to a top-nine role, but that possibility grew more remote with every passing shift spent buried on the fourth line in L.A. There was apparently no leapfrogging Stoll on the depth chart.
With that said, make no mistake: Richards has not suddenly regressed into an AHL-caliber player.
He's just not an ideal NHL grinder, either—especially with his cap hit—which rendered him expendable for now given how desperately the GM needed to do something to wake his club from its slumber.
If he can summon some of his old swagger and pair it with consistency in the minors, he may carve himself a clear-cut third-line role with the Kings. Until he forces Sutter's hand into that decision, however, he's not worth carrying on the roster.
Yes, even despite the struggles of his replacement, Nick Shore.
In Manchester, Richards will surely find himself in a top-six slot with more minutes and special teams action than he’s seen as a King in about two years. He’ll also deal with significantly less media attention in the AHL.
That sounds like the recipe for a slumping center to regain his confidence.
With the spotlight fading, Richards can focus strictly on his craft—performance, training, developing good habits.
His defensive instincts have faltered on many instances this season. Smart positioning and anticipation, which were staples of his erstwhile game, haven't featured prominently of late. Lapses of this sort simply didn't happen to 2012 Richards:
Also, without the bulldozing physicality of his early years, he has to figure out how to best leverage his existing skill set.
There’s obviously no guarantee that he has high-level play left in the tank, but if it’s in there somewhere, Lombardi has chosen the right approach to coaxing it out.
Bumping him up the lineup and then demoting him at the first sign of trouble was always set to lead him to the same destination with the Kings.
A temporary change of scenery could provide the distance required to conjure a significant and sustainable return to form. It'll certainly provide some clarity regarding his long-term future with the team.
As an added bonus, Richards is a noted big-game player. Even at the tail end of his wretched 2013-14 campaign, he manufactured several game-breaking plays in the postseason on the strength of his hockey sense and will to win.
Should he develop a head of steam in the minors and carry that back to L.A., he could become the team’s ace in the hole in the playoffs.
Lombardi had seen enough—not only from Richards but from his entire team.
He needed to put his foot down and demonstrate that L.A.’s season has been entirely unacceptable. Instead of waiting for his troops to flip the switch, he's tried to flip it for them. He can only hope that Wednesday's gritty 4-3 win over the Chicago Blackhawks was the start of an inspired stretch.
Furthermore, Lombardi has pushed Richards to see if the once-dominant two-way pivot will push back.
If he does, that could spell trouble for the Western Conference.
If he doesn’t, management will have its answer and can part ways with him over the summer.