The glow of the 2014 Stanley Cup triumph and the reassuring words and promises from Mike Richards were enough to persuade Kings General Manager Dean Lombardi against using a compliance buyout with the veteran center last summer.
But loyalty proved costly in more ways than one.
On Sunday, the Kings placed Richards on unconditional waivers, moving toward buying out his hefty remaining contract. The salary cap hit will be on the Kings' books through the 2024-25 season.
Richards has five years and $22 million left on his contract — the one he signed when he was with the Philadelphia Flyers. The provision for the buyout is two-thirds of the contract, meaning the Kings will owe him $14.6 million, spread out over 10 years.
Especially problematic for the Kings will be the buyout cap hit in the third and fourth years — $4.216 million each year, according to the website capfriendly.com.
The drop-off in Richards' performance before he hit his 30th birthday in February this year was dramatic considering his championship pedigree: He won two Stanley Cups with the Kings, reached the Cup Final with the Flyers and won Olympic gold with Team Canada at Vancouver in 2010.
Richards cleared waivers right after the All-Star break when the Kings sent the struggling forward to their minor league affiliate in Manchester, N.H. He returned late in March but had minimal impact as the Kings failed to make the playoffs, and since the end of the season the organization has been exploring trade possibilities and, of late, other options to get out from under the big contract.
Lombardi's failure to use the gift of a compliance buyout last summer was a rare blunder by a usually savvy executive. Lombardi went to visit Richards in his hometown of Kenora, Canada, and said to The Times then that the player "looked him in the eye" and promised to make the necessary training commitment in the off-season.
"Essentially, I have to trust him," Lombardi said last summer. "Once that deadline goes, we're locked in."
The New York Rangers, in fact, used a compliance buyout on Brad Richards last summer, shortly after their loss to the Kings in the 2014 Stanley Cup Final. The center (no relation to Mike Richards) then signed a one-year deal with the Chicago Blackhawks, who won the Cup this month.
Two other players on Sunday were put on waivers, also headed for likely buyouts — Montreal forward P.A. Parenteau and Ducks defenseman Mark Fistric. Fistric, 29, has two years remaining on his contract and the buyout will cost the Ducks $1.8 million, spread over four years.
The Canadian network Sportsnet reported that the Mike Richards buyout was the sixth largest in the NHL since 2005.
The move continues a summer of transition for the Kings as three players on last year's season-opening roster are expected to be elsewhere: Richards, center Jarret Stoll and in-demand, soon-to-be unrestricted free agent Justin Williams.
Defenseman Andrej Sekera, a trade deadline acquisition, is unlikely to return barring a dramatic change of events. Martin Jones, the team's No. 2 goalie, was sent to Boston in the Milan Lucic trade Friday.
The recent moves by the Kings and Ducks, who acquired Carl Hagelin from the Rangers on Saturday, are turning the Western Conference, and in particular the Pacific Division, into even more of an arms race.
"I thought Dean [Lombardi] did a good job getting Lucic," said Ducks General Manager Bob Murray. "I thought that was a good move. I thought Calgary got better.
"The West was getting better here in the last couple of days."
Calgary's impressive defense corps got even better when the Flames acquired Dougie Hamilton from the Bruins on Friday in exchange for a first-round draft pick (15th overall) and two second-round picks. Vancouver was trying to get Lucic but lost out to the Kings.
"The division got better for sure," Canucks GM Jim Benning told the Vancouver Sun.
And Murray isn't necessarily done yet. He will have discussions early this week with his veteran defenseman Francois Beauchemin, who will become an unrestricted free agent on Wednesday.
"There are some things out there. I don't know where we're going to go with that. I don't think we're finished," Murray said Saturday. "But I'm not going to rush right into free agency. I'm waiting to see what happens a few days into it."
Defenseman Chris Pronger, part of the Ducks' Stanley Cup championship team in 2007, is expected to elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame on Monday. Voting takes place in Toronto, and the other lock for the Hall is defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom, a Detroit Red Wings icon who won seven Norris trophies.