For Kings and center Mike Richards, trust is a two-way street
In a sport increasingly influenced by analytics, in a league where one bad decision can wreck a team’s salary-cap structure and cramp its future, Kings General Manager Dean Lombardi relied on old-fashioned methodology in deciding to keep Mike Richards rather than buy out the veteran center after a disappointing regular-season performance.
Wonk that he is, Lombardi did plenty of homework. He used side-by-side monitors to study tapes of Richards’ skating during his prime seasons with the Philadelphia Flyers and last season, looking for differences. He asked people around the NHL when they thought it reasonable for a player’s production to drop off, especially those who — like Richards — aren’t smooth skaters. Lombardi discounted declines triggered by injuries, as once happened to Kings Coach Darryl Sutter, because there was no physical problem to explain the woes that consigned Richards to the fourth line.
Lombardi concluded Richards wasn’t washed up at 29 and simply needed to be fitter, which would improve his stride and overall game. Soon after the Kings’ second Stanley Cup triumph in three seasons, Lombardi let the window for compliance buyouts close, keeping Richards’ contract and annual cap hit of $5.75 million for the next six seasons.
“I met with him. He made a promise he’d do it, and when a guy looks you in the eye and promises, to me that goes beyond loyalty,” Lombardi said Tuesday. “A guy’s giving you his word. That’s more important than a contract or anything else. I certainly think he deserves our trust when he looks myself and Darryl in the eye and says, ‘I’m going to do it.’
“This was solely a matter of putting in the work. And I felt that given the diminished role that he’s got so much pride and I trusted that his pride would say, ‘You know what, I’ve got to make some adjustments.’”
Keeping Richards is a big gamble. Soon, Lombardi will have to re-sign Justin Williams and Anze Kopitar, among others, and Richards’ cap hit will consume a big chunk of space.
But Lombardi is betting Richards can rebound from an 11-goal, 41 point season and again be the difference-maker he was during the team’s 2012 Cup run. More than that — he’s hoping Richards wants to do it.
“If there’s any doubt when you’re weighing the decision the doubt has to be weighed in his favor,” Lombardi said. “I think there’s an element of we expect players to be loyal to us. I think they’re entitled to loyalty from us within reason, so the doubt has to be resolved in his favor, given that I do value loyalty and it’s a two-way street.”
Richards acknowledged he was worried about being bought out because he wanted to stay here and try to extend the Kings’ most successful era. He also knew he’d have to put in serious work over the summer, and he did.
“I worked out with a trainer for the first time since I was in junior. Just to be there and push me and more or less to make sure I’m there every day. Almost like a baby-sitter, I guess,” said Richards, who also worked out with some NHL players.
“Just having that presence around people and working out to push each other, for the first time I saw the benefit of it.”
If being placed on the fourth line by Sutter wounded Richards’ pride, he didn’t sulk.
“He’s doing his job. He’s coaching. He’s putting me in a position he thought was fit and I played that role,” Richards said. “We’re professional athletes. I’m not going to go crying to him. You just do your best in the role that you’re put in.”
He had his moments during the playoffs when his instincts and leadership kicked in, though he had only three goals and 10 points in 26 games. In Game 7 of the Kings’ second-round playoff series against Anaheim, Richards scored the third goal in a dominant first period that triggered a rout. In Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final, his pass to Justin Williams set up Williams’ overtime winner.
Lombardi believes those smarts, those clutch plays, are still there and can be repeated by a more fit Richards.
“It’s hard to find people, athletes, as competitive as Michael,” Lombardi said. “Competitive and also completely understand the significance of the moment. That’s a special gift.”
It’s early in training camp, but Richards appears to have kept his word. “I know he’s in shape. He did quite a few pull-ups in there while I was watching him,” a smiling Williams said a few days ago.
“I’m sure he wants to better himself and establish himself as one of the premier centers in the league, and he’s done all the right talking. It seems like he’s done a lot of work as well. We’ll see. I never question him. He’s a great player. Him being at the top of his game is only going to make us better.”
Follow Helene Elliott on Twitter @helenenothelen
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