That is like trying to put the toothpaste back in the tube, say many NHL agents and players who worry that Richards’ story has opened up new territory that teams in all sports might use to get out of paying under-performing, high-paid players.
“Are you kidding? Of course it set a precedent,” one longtime agent told Bleacher Report. “Another team is definitely going to try this again based on what the Kings did with Richards because they got away with it.”
Whether the Kings got away with anything has been the hot topic at NHL rinks over much of the last week.
To review: Richards, 30, was cited by the Kings for material breach of his contract after he was arrested in Emerson, Manitoba, on June 17 for alleged possession of OxyContin, a controlled substance that was banned throughout much of Canada in 2013. He was formally charged by Canadian authorities in August and has a court date slated for Dec. 8.
Elliotte Friedman of Sportsnet reported that the settlement is worth $10.5 million spread out in each season until 2032. That’s still less than the $14.7 million he would have received in a normal buyout the Kings probably would have administered during the June 15-30 league buyout window, if not for the arrest.
According to Friedman, the Kings will take a $3.12 million salary-cap hit for this season on Richards, a $1.57 million hit in the following four seasons and minimal amounts after that until 2032.
In other words, the Kings made out nicely on a player with a huge contract they didn’t want anymore.
According to Spotrac, the Kings have a current payroll of $69.2 million with the settlement. Had Richards been bought out normally, the Kings’ cap number would be $71.5 million—above the NHL ceiling of $71.3 million—and would have been squeezed more in the coming years.
That would have been bad news for a team with star center Anze Kopitar in the final year of his contract.
“What if Patrick Kane suffered some career-ending injury tomorrow and then something took a turn for the worse in his [rape] case. You don’t think the Blackhawks—looking at having a cap hit of $10 million for the next bunch of years—might not say to themselves, ‘Hmm, wonder if we can try what L.A. tried with Richards?'” said the same player agent.
“Maybe they hire a couple of private investigators and tail his every move and if he does one thing, make a quick call to the cops. Then they claim: ‘Breach, breach.’”
Along with more than a dozen agents, Bleacher Report canvassed several players for their reaction to the Richards story. One veteran NHL player who spoke on the condition of anonymity worries about future ramifications.
“That could be me some day, who knows?” he said. “It’s something that I think we’re going to have to keep an eye on as players.”
NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly knows there are several unanswered questions and concerns among not only players and agents, but also 29 other general managers who may not be happy at a recent two-time Stanley Cup champion seemingly slipping its way out of a punishing contract.
Reached Wednesday by Bleacher Report, Daly said people are overreacting.
“I understand the sympathy for the player here, but people don’t know the full story and likely never will,” Daly said. “It’s always dangerous to jump to conclusions without knowing all the facts.”
As for accusations that the Kings had little basis on which to terminate Richards’ contract—keep in mind, Richards has been convicted of nothing—Daly said, “If your conduct is not consistent with the requirements of your contract, you are always subject to a club being able to claim material breach and terminating you as a result. That’s always been the case.”
Is simply being charged with possession of an illegal drug at the border grounds for terminating a player’s contract, though?
If so, dozens of players from all sports, including the NHL—Daly told TSN's Rick Westhead that the NHL has seen an uptick in player cocaine use in the last year—could be sued for breach by their teams.
That this happened to a player whose play had rapidly declined but still had five years and $22 million left on his deal, per General Fanager—as opposed to the Kings not immediately terminating the contract of their young, promising defenseman, Slava Voynov, after he was convicted of spousal abuse last year (though Voynov did voluntarily leave under the threat of termination)—is being viewed suspiciously around the league.
“If this happened to the 25-year-old Mike Richards, performing at a high level, instead of the 30-year-old, declining Mike Richards, do the Kings try to sue him for breach? No,” another longtime agent said.
“The optics of this whole thing is terrible for everyone, the league and the players association.”
One unanswered question with the story is, was Richards given help for any possible problem with prescription medications or other drugs through the NHL’s Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Program?
In 2011, Philly.com's Dan Gross detailed the whispers of Richards' hard-partying lifestyle, going back to his days in Philadelphia. But there has never been any public disclosure of his being admitted to the league’s assistance program.
Daly would not address any specifics regarding Richards and the SABH, citing its confidential policies.
Last Friday, Kings GM Dean Lombardi raised eyebrows everywhere by writing a publicly disclosed email to Los Angeles Times hockey reporter Lisa Dillman in which he said Richards’ situation was a “tragedy,” Richards was in a “self-destructive spiral” and it was “the most traumatic episode of my career.”
Lombardi said he had heard “rumors” for years of possible off-ice issues with Richards, but he “refused to believe them” and was ultimately “played.”
About that letter, there was consensus that Lombardi showed poor form.
“I mean, going public like that, discussing team-player business and trashing Mike Richards’ character. I thought it showed poorly on Dean and the Los Angeles Kings,” one agent said. “The whole thing was just weird, and for Dean to say he was 'played'—I mean, he was with Richards in Philly. He didn’t know any of the ‘rumors’ about him back then. Really? It just doesn’t pass the smell test.”
Could Lombardi’s actions cause players to shy away from wanting to play for him and the Kings in the near term?
“I don’t think so. Players just want to know who the coach is when considering a new team, not so much the GM,” an East Coast agent said. “You wonder a little, though, if the players already on the Kings, what they thought of that letter.”
It remains unknown if Richards may have been prescribed OxyContin by Kings or any other NHL team doctors. Daly declined comment on that, as did Lombardi and the Kings in general.
Not everyone thought Richards finished a loser in all this.
One agent called it a “win” for the NHLPA: “He was going to get bought out, which would have gotten him two-thirds of the remainder of his deal, spread out over double the term. Then he was going to get terminated. The PA gets him probably close to what he was going to get anyway, and now he’s [a] UFA. He might have gotten nothing at all.”
Richards has not commented publicly since his arrest, and his agent, Pat Morris, declined to comment when reached by Bleacher Report. A source who lives in Richards’ hometown of Kenora, Ontario, said Richards is spending most of his time at his house on Lake of the Woods.
Morris did tell Westhead this week that Richards, an unrestricted free agent, hopes to resume his NHL career soon. That would almost certainly have to wait until his legal status is resolved.
When that might happen?
Like a lot in this saga, that remains unknown. All the unknowns the story has produced—and arguably will produce in the future—are what have a lot of people in the game worried.
Adrian Dater covers the NHL for Bleacher Report.