Mike Richards and the downward spiral

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Greg Wyshynski
Mike Richards and the downward spiral
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Remember Mike Richards?

Not the fourth-liner that cleared waivers for the Los Angeles Kings and was demoted to AHL Manchester on Tuesday. That’s not the guy we’re talking about here.

The Mike Richards we remember was a Selke-worthy defensive center with offensive upside, a player that could be mentioned in the same breath as Jonathan Toews and Patrice Bergeron for that duality and not have many scoff at it. A player who drove possession for his teams, even when pressed into situations that weren’t exactly corsi-friendly as a defensive forward. A player with an edge to his game that allowed him to piss off players like Sidney Crosby as he was shuttering them offensively.

We miss that guy.

Figuring out where he went … well, novels could be written. Justin Bourne has a nice take on it last year, a year that earned Richards his second Stanley Cup ring:

He’s moved out of his scoring prime, which for offensive players is roughly the 22-27 range, and he’s played a ton of hockey compared to most 29-year-olds. He’s laced up the skates for 758 NHL games including 101 brutally physical post-season battles (over only eight NHL seasons), most of which have come towards the latter half of his career. And, that style he’s played isn’t exactly one that’s allowed him to float around and get through many games without contact. He’s never been the most fleet-of-foot guy in the league, so losing a half-step is bound to affect his game more than most.

And that’s the thing: For whatever reason, at a certain age and mileage, guys lose something off their game. We look at Richards’ age (30 on Feb. 11) and his games played (just 704) and wonder why there’s been this downgrade in his career. We see him hit the waiver wire as a capable center – ideally a No. 2 for a good team – and wonder why no one will take him at $5.75 million through 2020; or through a trade with the Kings in which they’d pick up some of the salary.

We can’t believe that his game has fallen off that steeply. Neither can the people employing him.

A talent evaluator like Kings GM Dean Lombardi puts it this way:

“The way I look at this, Mike’s, in his career, he’s shown he can be a .330 hitter and get you 80 RBIs as an All-Star player. So, maybe at this stage, maybe it’s not there. But I still assume he’s capable of being a .280 hitter and doing a lot of those things for you that only he can do. Let’s face it – right now he’s batting .200, but I don’t see any reason why he can’t get back to that. He’s got to do what he’s got to do. “

And then Lombardi really makes you think when he says:

“The only analogy too, you can come up [with] – there’s a lot things that I saw that reminded of where Teemu Selanne was at this stage. I remember when he had fallen off the map, it looked like, in Colorado. It looked like he was done, and then he started changing some things and then went on to two great 10 years, for crying out loud. It’s up to Mike. There’s no [doubt] in my mind, I believe that if he wants to, that he can get back to that. But it’s going to be up to him.”

Will we have a Mike Richards lovefest in 10 years like we did with Teemu? Eh, probably not. But the idea that a veteran player can suffer a dip around this time in his career and then morph into something else? That’s intriguing.

But Lombardi has to say this because, essentially, he blew it. He had a chance to buy out Richards last summer without any cap repercussions, and opted for loyalty and the hope that he’d put in the work to elevate himself about the fourth line and healthy scratch-dom. And Richards couldn’t get it together, and now he’s being Wade Redden’d to the AHL at a time when the Kings need a kick in the rear.

Let’s be honest: That’s a huge facet of this. “It’s just not very often that you see a player of Rick’s stature go on waivers,” said captain Dustin Brown, and that’s an understatement. The Kings are in a muddle for the last wild card with the Calgary Flames, Colorado Avalanche and Dallas Stars, trailing the Vancouver Canucks by three points for third in the Pacific. They entered the All-Star Break limping with a 2-3-5 record in their last 10.

They get back to work and BOOM, Lombardi lowers the hammer on Richards. He would have traded him if there was a taker. In any case, he's gone from King to Monarch. 

It’s frustrating for all involved because, again, there’s been this inexplicable decline in Richards’ game. Was it one concussion too many? The concussion he suffered in June 2013 is looking more and more like a career-altering event.

Simply a matter of being in statistic decline at his age? Losing a step, getting down about it, and not giving the effort in and out of the season to make up for it?

That other Mike Richards was a special player. The kind you’d expect to have two Stanley Cup rings by 30. But not the kind you’d expect to see demoted to the AHL, unclaimed on waivers and with an uncertain future in the NHL. Which is where this Mike Richards resides.

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