On Monday, the Los Angeles Kings placed Mike Richards on unconditional waivers with the intention of buying out his contract. Shortly after the news broke, Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston calculated the extent of the damage:
Kings general manager Dean Lombardi could have bought Richards out last year, using one of the compliance buyouts that the league tossed out as life preservers after the new collective bargaining agreement came into effect in 2012-13. Unfortunately for L.A., he chose not do so, which means that the Kings will be on the hook for not only money but also significant cap space for the next decade.
Johnston used the word “loyalty” to describe the ill-considered decision, and understandably so. After all, that’s how Lombardi described the mistake to ESPN.com’s Katie Strang shortly after Los Angeles failed to qualify for the 2015 Stanley Cup playoffs.
“It could be the worst decision I ever made, but for all the right reasons,” he told Strang. “In a cap world, you can't have any heart and soul. I struggle with that.”
Richards had five years left on a 12-season contract originally signed when he was in Philadelphia. According to TSN’s Frank Seravalli, the actual cap hit attached to the Kings will vary by year, peaking at just over $4.2 million in the 2018-19 and 2019-20 seasons. Los Angeles will face a $1.22 million cap penalty next season and then a minimum charge of $1.47 million against the salary cap each year until 2025.
That’s an insane price to pay for loyalty. But casting Lombardi as a good man who was simply too loyal to his trusted player misses a big piece of the picture. It’s a little like a job applicant describing himself as “too hardworking” when asked to identify personal flaws—not only is it glib, but there’s probably a real issue there that deserves some consideration.
In this case it comes down to some faulty cost/benefit analysis by Lombardi last summer.
Richards’ fall from grace had not been the result of one poor season. Looking at his numbers last September, it was obvious he had been struggling for a long time. Richards’ formidable reputation formed over years of strong play, combined with the effectiveness of the Kings, shielded him from being called out as an underperformer, literally for years.
So when calculating the possible benefits of keeping Richards under contract, Lombardi could realistically expect him only to rebound so much. There was never any appreciable chance that he was going to end up being worth his contract. At best, the Kings might have had a pivot who was mildly rather than ridiculously overpaid.
The other key benefit of this best-case scenario was financial: The Kings would not be paying large quantities of cash for a player not to play for them.
In other words, assuming the very best, Los Angeles would have a somewhat overpaid centre on the downhill side of his career arc on the roster for five more seasons after 2014-15.
Weighed against that was an opportunity to wipe him from the books immediately, a decision which would come with no lasting ramifications for the team from a hockey standpoint. Lombardi snaps his fingers, ownership writes a slightly larger check than the one it's writing this summer, and presto!—the Kings are suddenly not just a good hockey team but a good hockey team with reams of cap space.
Lombardi says it’s impossible to “have any heart and soul” in the NHL, as though Richards’ issues were not of the player's own making and as if the centre wasn’t going to be handsomely compensated for doing exactly nothing in the event of a compliance buyout.
Nobody would have realistically suffered; this was never a moral choice.
The truth is that Lombardi made a bad call. For whatever reason, he failed to make a decision that was obviously in the best interests of his team. If it was due to sentiment—to a desire to keep Richards in a city where he won two championships—it’s no more excusable than if Lombardi simply failed to appreciate how badly Richards had declined or had messed up while calculating team payroll.
Lombardi has made a lot of good decisions over his time at the helm of the team. Franchises just don't win multiple Stanley Cups in a 30-team league by dumb luck; on the whole, the club's management has been smart and effective.
Here, though, the Kings made a shortsighted decision. It is an error that will make it that much harder to win a third Stanley Cup, and the responsibility for the mistake falls on Lombardi's shoulders.
It really is that simple.
Jonathan Willis covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter for more of his work.