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.

NHL Rank
NHL Rank

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.