Richards Demoted, What’s Wrong With The Los Angeles Kings?

Mike Richards is 29 years old. He has two Stanley Cup rings, captained another team to a Finals appearance and has four 60+ point NHL seasons. He has engraved his name as an integral part of the history of two franchises. Despite all of that, Mike Richards will be suiting up for the AHL’s Manchester Monarchs this weekend after passing through waivers unclaimed on Tuesday. His fall serves as just another example that professional sports can be a brutal business. It also shows that the defending champion Los Angeles Kings have lost patience with an under-performing veteran and a roster that has looked sluggish in the first half of this season.

Kings’ GM Dean Lombardi broke it down with a baseball batting average analogy, but for a player like Richards, you can bet passing through waivers unclaimed was emotional and personal. The Kenora, Ontario native has long had a reputation for being a fierce leader who leaves everything out on the ice. It’s why the Philadelphia Flyers signed him to a 12-year deal with an annual cap hit of $5.75m and then appointed him as captain in 2008.

Philadelphia GM Paul Holmgren decided at the 2011 NHL Entry Draft that his then-captain was not indispensable. He dealt Richards to LA as a part of the cap clearance required to acquire goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov.

Richards hasn’t been the same player offensively since his trade to the Kings, but his leadership, experience and all-round game have undoubtedly been a valuable part of the their recent postseason success.

Even offensively, where a best performance of 12 goals and 32 points in 48 games during the lockout shortened 2012-13 season is underwhelming, it felt like Richards was always able to step up his game when it was needed most. He had 15 points in 20 games during the Stanley Cup winning 2012 playoff run and he grabbed 12 points in 15 games in 2013 when the Kings fell to the Blackhawks in the Western conference finals. Even last season, Richards’ playoff performance playing with the team’s younger forwards was a factor in a second Stanley Cup championship in three seasons.

Richards’ NHL career should not be over, let’s be clear about that, but the lack of a waiver pickup is an indication that his length of contract and cap hit are not desirable for what teams believe he can offer.

His offensive production, which had been pretty consistent in Philadelphia where reeled off seasons of 75, 80, 62 and 66 points, has taken an understandable hit in the defense first, second and third system run by Darryl Sutter. However, an 11-goal season followed by just 15 points in the first 47 games in 2014-15 is representative of a player in decline.

It’s not just his offensive game that has suffered though. Richards hasn’t been the same two-way force, losing more board battles and clearly lacking a skating step that he once had. He has always played a North-South style relying upon his physical attributes at both ends of the ice.

It’s possible that the concussions suffered during his career are now slowing Richards down, or that the effect of 61 playoff games over the last three seasons is finally taking a toll (though there are a few Kings’ players who have experienced the same). It’s probable that if Richards only had one or two years left on his contract he would have been claimed off of waivers. He may not have even been sent down if his cap hit was $2.75m rather than $5.75m.

As much as leadership, experience and a terrific package of intangibles make Mike Richards a valuable player, they don’t add up to $5.75 million. Teams aren’t likely to invest in the veteran center without believing that he’s capable of producing and playing a strong two-way game.

Lombardi might be ruing not taking his chance to buy out Richards’ contract last summer, a time when he could have done so with no salary cap repercussions. Richards may come to rue that decision as well. Wade Redden was demoted to the AHL by the New York Rangers in 2010 and didn’t return to the NHL until 2013, in part because of his hit against the cap. Richards’ contract doesn’t expire until the 2019-20 season.

Richards might be a “.280 batter hitting only .200”, but the Kings look like an ace whose lost 5 mph off his fastball. LA trails Calgary and Vancouver by one point for the final Wildcard spot and third place in the Pacific division. They stumbled into the All-Star break going 3-4-5 post Christmas.

For all of the discussion of Richards and his lack of offensive contributions over the past few days, LA’s biggest problem this season hasn’t been a lack of goal scoring. Sutter’s team has struggled to play the tight and physical game that they perfected on three consecutive playoff runs. The numbers offer a pretty clear indication that this team is no longer doing what it previously did best. The table below shows LA’s regular season goals per game and goals against per game and how they ranked over the past four years.


Goals/G
NHL Rank
GA/G
NHL Rank
2014-15
2.75
15th
2.54
12th
2013-14
2.42
26th
2.05
1st
2012-13
2.73
10th
2.38
7th
2011-12
2.29
29th
2.02
2nd

Ranking 12th in terms of goals conceded per game is hardly a disaster. However, it’s significant in relation to the identity of the Kings. The two years in which they won the Stanley Cup, they entered the postseason as the eighth and sixth seeds in the Western conference playoffs, but finished with the 2nd and best goals against average per game respectively.

This year has been a different story. It’s difficult to work out the precise reason for that drop.

Jonathan Quick, a somewhat difficult goaltender to assess at times, hasn’t been at his sharpest posting a mediocre .910 save percentage and 2.48 GAA. Quick faced some similar struggles after the 2012 Stanley Cup victory. He hasn’t been helped by a heavy workload enforced by a lack of full trust in Martin Jones and the team’s precarious position in the playoff race. Quick has produced his best hockey at the business end of the hockey season in the past and he’ll need to do the same again over the next few months for his team to enjoy success.

The blue line hasn’t been stable either. Matt Greene has clearly lost a step and Brayden McNabb has been guilty of a few too many breakdowns. Robyn Regehr has been in and out of the lineup recently. Slava Voynov’s suspension and ongoing legal difficulties are a major problem. Voynov played a vital role in the Kings’ transition and puck possession game. In his absence, Sutter has relied more heavily upon his top four and LA’s blue-line has looked a little flat-footed.  

The Kings are still in position to reach the playoffs. They’re chasing a young Flames lineup and a couple of unproven teams in the Canucks and Jets. However, if they are going to pull off another deep playoff run, they’ll need to re-discover that lockdown style and edge to their game. Lombardi’s demotion of Richards was brutal, he’ll hope that the rest of the roster starts playing with the brutality that they’ve shown in past years.
For Richards, the path back into another NHL playoff race is with the Monarchs. It’s a level of adversity that he hasn’t had to deal with before, but given his character and past achievements, it’d be dangerous to count Richards out from having an impact on this year’s playoff race.

3 Reasons The NHL’s All-Star Weekend Is Always Going To Be Boring

The 2015 Honda NHL All-Star Game In Columbus saw Team Toews top Team Foligno by a score of 17-12.That’s right… we saw a total of 29 goals, an NHL record for an All-Star game. And yet, the All-Star game and the entire weekend for that matter seems to always carry with it a certain sense of malaise and boredom to it, much like the NBA’s version of the festivities, or any league’s version for that matter.

There are a few key reasons for that and one of them is that the players simply don’t take it seriously and they probably never will. Yes the winning team gets more money for winning the game and the MVP of the game gets a brand-new car, but NHL All-Stars don’t exactly need extra money in their wallets or an extra SUV or pickup truck.

Another big reason for the boredom is that more goals don’t necessarily mean more excitement… just means more stoppages in play. Couple that with the fact that the game itself lacks any sort of intensity at all, and the event becomes more of a glorified scrimmage rather than a display of the best in the world performing at their best. Any hockey fan that wants to see the NHL at its best knows that the best hockey occurs during the Stanley Cup Playoffs and no matter what the league does to try to make the All-Star game more exciting, that’s always going to be the case.

And then of course there is the rest of the All-Star weekend, the skills competition. Again much like the NBA, it seems these days that most fans would rather watch the skills competition than the All-Star game, simply because you get to see players compete in various facets of the game that don’t often get displayed outside of practice, which makes it a little bit more intriguing to take in.

It also seems like there’s a lot more opportunity to joke around, have fun and pump the crowd up during the event. Blue Jackets forward Ryan Johansen skating down the ice with an Ohio State Buckeyes jersey on comes to mind, and so does Jakub Voracek using Johnny Gudreau as a prop to score a goal.

But even with the best effort of the players to bring creativity to the event, the bottom line is there’s only so much you can do with a hockey puck on ice that will continue to wow the crowd every year. The NBA’s slam dunk contest is often seen as the marquee event of the whole weekend, yet there is a discussion every so often about whether it should be put on hiatus for awhile because a slam dunk can only be reinvented in so many ways.

Nevertheless the NHL’s version will continue to be a part of All-Star Weekend along with the rest of the festivities that take place. But rather than try to make the weekend better, perhaps fans should just take the event for what is… a break from the everyday grind of the NHL regular-season schedule and a showcase of cool tricks, gimmicks, and futuristic looking All-Stars jerseys that you would never get to see otherwise.

Where Do the Toronto Maple Leafs Go from Here?

After the news broke about a week ago that the Toronto Maple Leafs will be without their captain for at least two weeks, the news hasn’t gotten any better.

Just before the injury, which he sustained after fighting twice leading up to the All-star break, one of the team’s better blue liners, Cody Franson, is now the biggest subject of trade rumours. Apparently the two sides are nowhere near in their negotiations. That shouldn’t be too much cause for concern, the last time they were in talks regarding Franson’s contract, talks actually went backwards (nowhere) for about a month before they finally agreed on something.

It’s also a mid-season change of philosophy that makes no sense for a team that appears to be neither fish nor fowl. Neither a Stanley Cup contender nor a serious contender for the Connor McDavid draft sweepstakes.

This is a team up hard against the salary cap. A team that is full of long term contracts – Kessel (7 1/2 years), Dion Phaneuf (6 1/2 years), David Clarkson (5 1/2 years), Jake Gardiner (4 1/2 years), Tyler Bozak (3 1/2 years), van Riemsdyk (3 1/2 years), Joffrey Lupul (3 1/2 years) and Leo Komarov (3 1/2 years).

These aren’t the ingredients for a team that is ripe for the complete “tear down and rebuild”.
Notice that none of those contracts above have a duration of less than  3 ½ years. Is this the key to putting together a championship team the way the Penguins, Blackhawks and now LA have done? Don’t sign any player to a contract longer than one year or two years?

Of course there are some exceptions to this ideal (Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin or maybe someone like Jonathan Quick).

The Maple Leafs resumed the 2014-15 season last night when they took on the New Jersey Devils. Things did not go well, again. They fell 2-1 in a shootout. Jonathan Bernier gave up two goals, as he usually does, while Cory Schneider stopped everybody.

There is no way the Leafs will be able to ‘rebuild’. There is no way at all they can even start to ‘rebuild.’ Where would they start? Rebuilding involves getting rid of what you have AND THEN figuring out what would be the next course of action. Does anybody have any idea how long that could take?

Some other teams around the NHL have to have interest in any number of players on the Leafs current roster, then they have to have something on their team that appeals to the Leafs.

What this team has needed since the Doug Gilmour days, is a Doug Gilmour-type player. Word out of Kingston (where he runs an OHL team) is that he actually isn’t the greatest coach or manager. He was my first choice for someone to coach this train wreck back to prosperity but after hearing about Kingston, I am not sure about that.

You can’t duplicate what he did on the ice though. He had everything. He is pretty much everything Dion Phaneuf is not. The Leafs need a guy like that and need him now.

The other thing they need is someone who, not only knows how to coach in this great game, but someone who knows how to coach this great game in the City of Toronto.

Phil Kessel is a top line forward on any team in this league, what he isn’t, is a leader. Same with most of the rest of them. Most of them are too young to be captain, or to take on any form of leadership.

NHL Expansion Candidates

NHL Expansion is once again a hot topic around the league, particularly among hockey fans and stakeholders at potential locations. In some of the scenarios, fans and media are talking like potential expansion sites are a done deal. Both NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and his right hand man Bill Daly have been quoted in recent interviews, saying that none of the rumors are true. In fact Bettman clearly stated during the All Star break, that they were not in a position to expand at this time, and any talks of team relocation were completely untrue. However, we all know the league is bound to confidentiality and will not divulge its plans until they are 100% confirmed.

As hockey fans, we love to speculate about this topic, especially when some of the potential destinations may be near and dear to our hearts, and may bring a team to a nearby community. Even though the league has stated there are no imminent plans for another team, we all know there is a list of front runners, and some cities that have a dream, but no real chance of getting a team. When evaluating potential locations, we have to understand league priorities. Bettman has stated that the first criteria is being in the west, since there are currently 14 teams in the Western Conference, and 16 in the East. This creates an unfair advantage as western teams have greater odds of making the playoffs, which has huge financial implications. Expansion in the west also reduces the imbalance in travel schedules between the conferences. The league has wanted a US based TV deal for years, so expansion into more US geographies increases the likelihood of securing that elusive US TV deal.

#1 Seed is Las Vegas due to a very strong and financially solid ownership team lead by William Foley. The team would land in the new 20K seat facility being built by MGM resorts and AEG (Owners of the LA Kings) to be completed in 2016. The league, the fans and even the players are stoked to have a team in Sin City, the number #1 tourist and convention destination in North America. As Foley states, LV is not just a tourist destination any more, there are 2.2M residents working not just in hospitality, but a variety of industries. In Las Vegas there are no other major professional sports franchises to compete with, however locals and tourists do have a multitude of other entertainment options, and if the team struggles on the ice, one wonders if the local fan commitment would be sustained in a desert based community. Foley has obtained permission from the league to conduct a ticket drive, this is a key indicator that the league is very serious about this ownership bid. Las Vegas is also in the west.

#2 Seed is Quebec City due to the new 18,482 seat Quebec Amphitheatre scheduled for completion in 2015. Taking the approach, build it and they will come will definitely aid the Quebec City bid, but they still need to solidify an ownership group. Currently Quebecor, would be the first choice, with a possibility of a partnership. Quebec also has community support in its favor, as there is no doubt the team would be well supported for the long haul, as it is with the other seven Canadian franchises. Also, working in Quebec‘s favour is the new 12 year, 5.2B TV deal the league now has with Rogers, who will want to see more Canadian content for their money, so they can sell more TV packages. One big hurdle for the Quebec bid is being located in the east. If there was an expansion in the east, Columbus or Detroit would have to move back to the Western conference which is very unlikely. The other possibility for Quebec would be if an Eastern team wants to relocate, or sell due to financial struggles. The obvious candidate here is the Florida Panthers, who last year sought financial aid from local governments to offset 25M per year in losses. Florida will always be Football, Baseball, and Basketball first and hockey will always struggle. Move this team to Quebec City, there will be a natural synergy with Dale Tallon, Gerard Gallant, and even Roberto Luongo. The Panthers would be loved in Quebec City.

#3 Seed is Seattle due to its North West coast location which balances the conferences, and brings exposure to a region where there is not a US based team currently. However, Seattle does not have a NHL ready arena in place, being built or even approved. There is currently a bid to bring an NBA franchise to Seattle, and if that happens the City has committed to building an arena. Seattle has been flaky about using taxpayer dollars to fund venues in the past, and there is not an NHL ownership bid in place in Seattle, so even though the league would like to place a team in Seattle, I do not for see this happening anytime soon.

There is a long list of hopefuls, but these are bids that are a long way from serious consideration by league for various reasons. Markham/GTA has expressed interest but has no arena in place. Hamilton are also interested, but the aging Copps Coliseum no longer meets NHL standards. The Toronto Maple Leafs and Buffalo Sabres cannot veto, but both would oppose these bids, plus they are in the east, so lots of hurdles to overcome. Kansas City and Milwaukee have also rumbled about NHL teams, but have arena and ownership issues to address before being seriously considered. 


The league is a lot more diligent now about their vetting process, due to a long list of past failures. Each time a team folds & relocates it costs the league and the owners millions of dollars. In the short term, there are only two locations that are ready for a team, Las Vegas and Quebec City, both of which will be great locations for NHL hockey.

Projected NHL Standings

It's the time of year where every team is trying to decide whether or not they should make a run for the playoffs and the Stanley Cup or if they should start looking at potential trade partners for their veteran players. I thought it would be interesting to try and project the final standings based on statistics from the first part of the season.

I'll spare you all the details but by using a regression based on data from the past 10 NHL seasons, I was able to find a formula that increases the predictability of the standings by about 20%. This formula of course includes a team's points per game in the first four months of the season, but it also includes the team's points per game from the past month as well as the goal differential from the past month.

With that said, here are the projected standings by conference:


GP
Pts
Proj. Pts

GP
Pts
Proj. Pts
NY Islanders
46
63
109
Anaheim
47
68
113
Montreal
45
61
106
St. Louis
46
62
111
NY Rangers
44
58
106
Nashville
45
65
111
Detroit
47
63
105
Chicago
47
62
104
Tampa Bay
48
64
105
Winnipeg
48
60
102
Pittsburgh
46
60
102
Vancouver
45
55
99
Washington
46
57
100
Calgary
47
53
93
Boston
48
57
97
San Jose
48
56
93
Florida
44
50
92
Dallas
46
49
92
Ottawa
46
47
87
Los Angeles
47
52
90
Toronto
48
47
82
Colorado
48
50
87
Columbus
45
43
81
Minnesota
46
46
84
Philadelphia
48
45
80
Arizona
46
37
69
New Jersey
47
42
80
Edmonton
47
33
68
Carolina
46
37
74
Buffalo
47
31
59

It's not a perfect science and things will certainly be different than what you see up here at the end of the season but it does give some interesting insight. The most interesting one is that despite the Los Angeles Kings being right being the Calgary Flames for the last playoff spot, they have been struggling of late while the Flames and Canucks have been playing well and are expected to move up the standings. They're also expected to get some stiff competition from the Dallas Stars.

Despite this being a more accurate portrait than the actual standings, the average margin of error is still +/- 5 points so if your team is still within 5 points of a playoff spot, odds aren't on your side but there's still hope.

Rick Nash: The wrist to carry the Rangers to the Cup

Every NHL pundit knows that the New York Rangers’ Rick Nash likes to shoot.  Blue line, face- off circle, point blank, it doesn’t matter, give Nash some space and he will find a way to put the puck on goal.

Although this mindset has led to a fair amount of past success for the 6-foot-two-inch forward, 220 pound forward, the numbers Nash is putting up this year, have never been seen before in his 12 year NHL career.

At the All-Star break Nash leads the NHL with 28 goals through 44 games while also dishing out 15 assists.  His dominance of the offensive side of the ice has lead the Rangers to a combined 16-5 record through the months of December and January to date, after they struggled to stay at the .500 mark through the first two months of the season.

The transcendence of Nash has given the defensive minded Rangers, who scored a mere 2.56 goals per contest on their way to the 2013-14 Stanley Cup Finals, a multidimensional approach to beating teams. In the 2013-14 season, the Rangers relied heavily on All Star goaltender Henrik Lundqvist to keep them in most games until their offense was able to find the net just enough to win.  However, as the 2014 Stanley Cup matchup with the heavily favored LA Kings showed, the Rangers were exposed for their less than inspired offensive performance, blowing two goal leads in the first two contests and scoring a grand total of zero third period goals on their way to a five game defeat at the hands of the Kings. 

Although last year’s disappointment may still be in the back of Ranger’s fans’ heads, their 134 goals scored to date, which is well ahead of last year’s season total of 218, has given fans a ray of offensive hope that when playoff time comes around, they will no longer have to rely on 45 save performances by Lundqvist to win games when they matter the most.

The center piece for this optimism is Nash, who has not only given the Rangers a much needed physical presence in front of the net, but also his ability to create scoring opportunities for his teammates by virtue of his 162 shots on goal.  These shots not only find the back of the net with regularity as evinced by Nash’s 17.3 shooting percentage, but also create rebound opportunities for Ranger speedsters like Martin St. Louis and Carl Hagelin who feed off of these rebounds when the Rangers are in odd man breaks.

Nash holds the keys to success for the Rangers second half push to the Cup.  If his numbers match those of the first half, NHL fans should be put on alert that Cup contenders will need to navigate the bright lights of New York, and the strong wrist of Nash, if they are to stake their claim for NHL glory.  

What to do with the NHL All-Star Game?

This weekend the city of Columbus, Ohio will host the 2015 NHL All Star Game. The event spans three days starting with the NHL All Star Fantasy Draft on Friday January 23rd at 8pm ET. The draft has captains Jonathan Toews and Nick Foligno picking from the group of players that have been selected for the ASG.  Toews is joined by assistants Ryan Getzlaf and Rick Nash, while Foligno is joined by Patrick Kane and Drew Doughty. This is a fun event for the players and fans alike, where the main objective for the remaining 36 players is not to be selected last as Phil Kessel was a couple years back, which he has not been able to shake to this day.

This year’s event also features 6 rookies (Johnny Gaudreau, Aaron Ekblad, Jiri Sekac, Mike Hoffman, Jonathan Drouin, and Filip Forsberg), who will only compete in the Skills competition on Saturday. Another interesting component this year is there will be fan voting via Twitter for the Breakaway Challenge.

The player selection process can be controversial to say the least and this year is no exception. The first six players selected are voted by the fans. Five of these players are from the Chicago Blackhawks (Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Corey Crawford, Duncan Keith, and Brent Seabrook). Each of these players received between 1-1.2M votes, meaning Chicago fans went online and voted. The player with the highest number of votes (1.5M) is Sabres’ center Zemgus Girgensons, from Lativia. Zemgus is a popular player, but he his 120th in league scoring, so he made the team pretty much because Latvian and Buffalo fans went online and placed their votes. 

After the fan vote, the league then selects 36 players and if we take into account that they chose 3 players from the Blue Jackets to represent the host city, it meant they had to pick 33 players from 27 different teams. After that there’s the obvious duo of forwards who are in the top 11 in NHL: Malkin / Crosby (neither of them will take part in the game because of injuries but both were originally selected), Voracek / Giroux and Johnson / Stamkos. Finally there’s the Nashville duo Rinne/Weber who both dominate at their respective position and finally Vladimir Tarasenko (9th in scoring) and Kevin Shattenkirk (2nd among defensemen in scoring). Once you put all that together, the only other two players who came from the same team are Anze Kopitar and Drew Doughty from the Los Angeles Kings. Could either of those have been replaced by Nicklas Backstrom (10th in scoring), Henrik Zetterberg (14th), Erik Karlsson or P.K. Subban? Probably, but you could argue for or against anyone of those guys.

This leads to the next questions: is it really pertinent to have one player from every team and is the fan voting really necessary? If the purpose is to showcase talent, the best players should be there no matter what team they play for. If the purpose is to get the highest audience, I think there’d be much better ratings if Backstrom, Zetterberg, Subban and Datsyuk had been there instead of names like Justin Faulk, Erik Johnson, Patrik Elias and Zemgus Girgensons. The other option would be to take out fan voting which would have allowed the league to remove a few Chicago Blackhawks players from the roster and add a second player, from other teams, who may be more deserving. You thought the league would have done this back in 2007 after Rory Fitzpatrick was 24,000 votes shy of being voted into the game. I know it’s a way to give fans a say but the voting system just doesn't work. It’s time to move on and try to give a better show to those who just want to watch the game and don’t take the time to vote hundreds of times for their favourite team’s players.

The all-star games in pretty much every major sport are becoming less and less popular except the NHL. The MLB’s attempt to make the game matter hasn't done anything for TV ratings and the NFL’s attempt to move the game or add a fantasy draft hasn't worked either. I don’t think a major change is needed, the all-star game is meant to see the best players showcase their talent so I think the only tweaking that needs to be done is to make sure the best players are there.