Washington Capitals forward Mike Richards doesn’t expect to talk to Dean Lombardi in the near future. Even if the two bump into one another at Tuesday’s Capitals/Los Angeles Kings game at Verizon Center – the first time Richards will face his former team after a bitter offseason divorce – Richards doesn’t know what he would say.
“I haven’t talked to him, but it’s nothing more than – really he was my boss. Do you talk to your former bosses? Probably not. So, that’s all it was. I haven’t talked to him and to be honest I don’t really expect to,” Richards said. “I’ve never really thought about it. I doubt really anything would be said. I’m not really sure to be honest.”
During the offseason the Kings terminated Richards’ contract for what the team called a “material breach.”
It was then reported Richards had been stopped at the US/Canada border for an issue involving the prescription pain killer oxycodone. Richards, was then charged with possession of a controlled substance.
Eventually Richards and the Kings came to a settlement on his contract, but the day that happened, Lombardi released a long statement to the Los Angeles Times saying he was “played” by Richards. At the time of the termination, Richards had five years left on his contract that carried a $5.75 million salary cap hit.
He played in a men’s league in his hometown in Kenora, Ontario, before the Capitals decided to sign him to a one-year $1 million contract to add lower-line depth. The move has been a decent fit for Richards personally. Caps coach Barry Trotz is known someone who has his pulse on players and their emotions. This has helped nudge Richards in the right direction – even if he hasn’t posted a point in 11 games played and has mostly seen fourth-line minutes. He's averaged 12:00 of ice-time per-game and won 55.4 percent of his face offs.
A year ago, Richards was on the outs in LA. The Kings had thought about buying him out the previous summer, but after Lombardi went to Richards’ home in Kenora, he believed the then 29-year-old Richards needed to focus more on nutrition and fitness in order to return to elite status.
Last year, the numbers didn’t add up to Lombardi’s faith. Richards bounced from the NHL to the minors and had 16 points in 53 games played.
This continued a precipitous decline that saw Richards drop from three straight years of 62 points or higher in Philadelphia to reaching no more than 44 points in his time with the Kings after a 2011 offseason trade.
Richards was already considered a regular buyout candidate by LA in the summer of 2015. And when the Kings terminated his deal, it brought confusion to what was believed to be a straightforward process.
The Kings were already dealing with the salary cap, and legal, uncertainty of Slava Voynov, a defenseman who held a $4.167 salary cap hit, who was suspended indefinitely with pay for domestic violence against his wife.
The team had hoped to retool from a year that saw them miss the postseason one year after winning a Stanley Cup. They also needed to re-sign pending unrestricted free agent Anze Kopitar before he hit the open market on July 1, 2016.
Richards’ contract was seen as an albatross and damaging to LA’s salary cap flexibility.
To this day, there are still questions on whether Kings management used Richards’ plight as a way to get out from under his contract. At times it feels like there's a disconnect between some players and coaches, who remember Richards as the teammate who helped them battle to two Stanley Cups, and Lombardi, who felt betrayed by Richards after their summer meeting in 2014.
“I think I’m record with all that. I think I’ve said that from day one. I wasn’t one of the people throwing Mike Richards under the bus,” Kings coach Darryl Sutter said. “I wanted what’s best for Mike Richards and I still do. Clear? It’s not even a question.”
After the Kings terminated the deal, the NHLPA filed a grievance. But the initial public damage had been done on Richards’ reputation. It got only worse when Lombardi felt the need to emote to the media.
“It’s tough to comment and there’s always two sides to every story. There was Dean’s who is obviously a loyal guy and felt hurt and there’s Mike’s side of the story,” said Justin Williams, a former Kings teammate of Richards' who has been reunited with him on the Caps. “Mike had a tough year last year no question. Things didn’t go the way we wanted tem to, that’s needless to say, and now I think he wants to close the book on that and move forward and try to resurrect his career and we want him to be able to do that.”
While Richards waited for teams to start calling, he played with his brothers in Kenora and tried to get ice-time where he could. The competition wasn’t exactly high-level, but it was a way to keep his hands and legs around NHL-level speed.
“It was fun, playing against a lot of my friends I grew up with and family too,” Richards said. “I enjoyed it and had a lot of fun, but obviously not the end point of where I wanted to be.”
Almost a year earlier, Richards and some of his friends from the Kings, were asked to take part in the film adaptation for the TV series “Entourage.”
The movie showed Richards, Jeff Carter, Jarret Stoll and Trevor Lewis hanging out at an oceanside home with celebrities and looking California cool. This was a long, long way from Kenora, a fact that wasn’t lost on Richards.
“I don’t know if this is being a little arrogant, or whatever but I always thought I’d be back in the league,” Richards said. “It never was in my mind that I wouldn’t be playing again.”
When the Capitals started looking into Richards they did their due diligence. The Caps have been arguably the best hockey team in the NHL this year, and they didn’t want Richards to disrupt their core. They asked Williams and received high marks on Richards and what he could bring to Washington’s dressing room.
“I think one of the things Mike brings is he brings a winning culture, that’s first and foremost,” Williams said. “He’s been successful in almost every team he’s been on and also he’s a team guy. He’s easy to get along with and I think that’s not a concern but maybe a question they had asked me coming into is what kind of guy is he and I certainly had no problems telling them what type of guy he is and that he’d be great for our dressing room.”
Richards’ desire to win has never been questioned. He was a former team captain with the Philadelphia Flyers. He won a Memorial Cup with the Kitchener Rangers. He won a Calder Cup with the Philadelphia Phantoms. He’s won two Cups at the NHL level and gone to three Stanley Cup Finals. But at the age of 31, does he still have the skill?
There have been whispers that he simply can’t keep up with the game anymore. Did that have to do with his reported personal problems? Or has his rugged 200-foot style caught up with him?
The Capitals play a more puck-pressuring, feet-moving system than the Kings, a team that grinds and cycles. So if Richards has lost a few steps, it would be more noticeable on the Caps.
“It’s different coming in when you play a system in LA and coming here and playing a system in Washington. It’s different, very different,” Williams said. “People may not realize that. Almost everything has changed a little bit, it’s a little more fast paced and it’s a lot more ‘go go go.’ It’s the way the game is played nowadays, get the puck, go send it and try to play in the other zone.”
Richards said his hands have been slower to return than his legs, which has surprised him.
“This year I didn’t really expect to come in and start lighting it up,” Richards said. “I’ve started to feel better on the ice. To be honest I thought it would take longer to get my legs under me than my hands right away, but it’s been the opposite.”
It’s unclear if Richards will ever be the same type of offensive player he once was. Can the Caps afford to keep him in the lineup as a fourth-line center if he’s not scoring? As long as the team keeps winning, it’s not really a question. They still see the same type of mentality that gained Richards praise and fame, which is really all they’re looking for right now.
“You can see it in him, and that’s one of the things we were looking for in that type of player, or one of the holes we were trying to fill is to have a player like that who has that type of warrior type mentality, that playoff mentality that playoff mentality, that experience and I can see it right from really right from game one he played,” said Capitals assistant coach Lane Lambert. “I just think … I think he’s such a gamer that he finds ways to get it done and has his entire career.”
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