Mike Richards is on his way back to the NHL.
The former captain of the Philadelphia Flyers, Selke Trophy finalist and two-time Stanley Cup winner agreed to what Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston reported was a one-year, $1 million deal with the Washington Capitals on Wednesday:
Mike Richards signs pro-rated $1M, one-year deal with #caps.— Chris Johnston (@reporterchris) January 6, 2016
There haven’t been many trades or signings around the league since the season got underway, but the Richards deal was one of three significant transactions announced on Wednesday as teams begin to gear up for the back half of the season and the playoffs.
For Washington, currently first in the NHL standings, every move from now through the end of the year will be about competing for a championship.
In that respect, the addition of Richards represented an opportunity to upgrade depth at the important centre position without parting with significant assets or dollars.
In an interview on the team’s official site, general manager Brian MacLellan took pains to describe the signing as a low-risk move, highlighting the relative modesty of Richards’ new deal. He also downplayed expectations as to Richards’ role on the team:
I think we’re going to be open-minded. We’re going to see where he’s at playing-wise. He’s been a No. 1 centre in this league, he’s been a third-line centre, a two-way guy. He’s been a fourth-line centre. We’re going to see where he’s at physically and mentally and try and incorporate him into our lineup where we see he fits. He could be a third-line centre, he could be a fourth-line centre.
In the short term, Richards will likely take on Jay Beagle’s role with the team. Isabelle Khurshudyan of the Washington Post reported that Beagle underwent hand surgery on Saturday and is expected to miss six weeks, leaving the Caps with a gap at centre on their third line for 20-odd games.
Beagle had been averaging 12 minutes per game at even strength, mostly with Jason Chimera and Tom Wilson, and had also been a key part of Washington’s penalty kill.
It’s a reasonable slot for Richards. Even at his worst, he was a very capable penalty-killer and competent faceoff man. Beagle has been a surprisingly good point producer over the last two years, averaging more than 1.5 points/hour at even strength. Richards has been below that lately, but as recently as 2013, he managed to reach that scoring level.
If Richards fares well in the role, Beagle could return on right wing, bumping Wilson into a fourth-line role and increasing the offensive punch of Washington’s depth forwards as well as the team’s ability to respond to injuries suffered during a playoff run.
If he’s less successful, he could be put in a fourth-line role himself. Or in the worst-case scenario, he could be dumped to the minors at a trivial salary-cap penalty.
The move also enables the Capitals to hoard their assets for bigger trade additions closer to the deadline if they so choose.
Barring injury, the addition of Richards further loads up an already dangerous Washington team, a team with a nice combination of top-end talent and depth at all positions.
Up front, the Capitals have two extremely dangerous lines. The top unit features the tried-and-true duo of Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom flanked by newcomer T.J. Oshie.
The second line includes veteran playoff performer Justin Williams and is centered by Evgeny Kuznetsov, whose emergence this year as an offensive dynamo has given Washington a lethal one-two punch.
Depth is still a bit of a question, though Richards helps.
Chimera/Beagle is a quality tandem for the third line, but after those two, the quality drops off significantly. Further development from first-round picks Andre Burakovsky and Tom Wilson would help, but it also wouldn’t be a shock if the Capitals added another forward before the trade deadline.
The defence appears primed for a Cup run, or at least it will be once everyone gets healthy.
Khurshudyan’s colleague Mark Giannotto wrote that the team’s top defence pair of Brooks Orpik and John Carlson are both making good progress and could return to the lineup soon, which would allow Matt Niskanen and Karl Alzner to resume second-pairing work and give Washington a formidable top four.
Round out the group with Nate Schmidt and Dmitry Orlov, and there is a lot to like about that blue line.
Playing in front of formidable goaltender Braden Holtby (25-4-2, .932 save percentage) doesn’t hurt either. Backup Philipp Grubauer is a quality insurance option.
Richards is good addition for a Washington team that could use upgraded forward depth, but the Capitals are also a golden opportunity for Richards.
This is a team that can use him if he shows himself able to play, and it’s a team that will likely enter the playoffs with home-ice advantage and a roster which—both on paper and during the regular season—has looked like a contender.
When the Kings terminated Richards' contract in June, it looked like his days of sipping from the Stanley Cup were behind him. His arrival in Washington means that he just might get to do it again.
Jonathan Willis covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter for more of his work.