The Kings should have shed Mike Richards' contract during last summer's final compliance-buyout period, but General Manager Dean Lombardi wanted to keep his core group together and willingly believed Richards' promises to improve his fitness.
Whether Richards didn't keep his word or was unable to keep pace in a young, fast NHL doesn't matter now. After waiving him and sending him to the American Hockey League in part to look at their young centers, the Kings found they need the competitive DNA Richards can bring to a challenging playoff drive, especially with veteran center Jarret Stoll out indefinitely and following concussion protocols. It's Richards' chance — and theirs — for redemption.
"This team has relied on experience in the past in their runs and different things, and Mike brings that," Rob Blake, the club's assistant general manager, said in a phone interview. "He has a professionalism about him and hopefully that excitement he can bring can rub off on some of these other guys too.
"It's not like you're bringing in a young player who's never played in the league at all. You're putting a guy in that has a lot of experience, has won at all levels, so we're not afraid to put him in that lineup with 10-plus games left and expect things out of him."
What's reasonable to expect? Coach Darryl Sutter made it clear last week he wasn't getting enough production from his young centers — or anyone else. Richards' playmaking might revive right wing Justin Williams, who hasn't had a center whose skills mesh with his this season.
"You like the veterans, the guys that have been around, in the middle. We were comfortable with Stoll there until he left with that injury," Blake said. "It's not like a two- or three-day thing where we know he's going to be back in three days. There's a lot of uncertainty there and I think Mike can fill in that role."
The Kings were outside a playoff position as Richards returned Monday at New Jersey to open a five-game trip. Time is growing short, even for the Kings: they clinched a playoff spot with four regular-season games left in 2009-10, two games left in 2010-11, one game left in 2011-12, four games left in 2012-13, and five games left last season. There are reasons to think they can do it again, but also huge obstacles.
"The optimism part would be the way this team has performed when, I guess the cliche, the back-against-the-wall thing," Blake said. "Getting in three seasons ago as an eight seed, I don't think being 1-8 is a concern once they get in. The main thing for this team is going to be to get in, and the main hurdles are going to be Vancouver, Calgary, Winnipeg, Minnesota — they're all getting points. None of them are sliding the other way."
It's tough to imagine the Kings will miss out. Richards will have a say in that.
Turning over a new leaf
The Toronto Maple Leafs were 21-16-3 and held the second East wild-card spot when General Manager David Nonis announced he had fired Coach Randy Carlyle because the team was too inconsistent. Those look like the good old days now, with the Maple Leafs long out of playoff contention and fallen to 27th overall.
Carlyle, who follows them on TV from his home near San Diego and stays current on the NHL by attending games in Anaheim, isn't gloating over their misfortunes. "I don't want to make any comments on what's gone on or what is happening. I think it's in my best interest to remain mute," he said the other day.
That's unlike another former Maple Leafs coach — initials Ron Wilson — who has publicly said he roots against them. Carlyle laughed. "That's not me, anyways," he said.
Returning to Southern California made sense for Carlyle, who coached the Ducks to the Stanley Cup in 2007 but was fired on Nov. 30, 2011. One of his sons, Craig, coaches the junior San Diego Gulls of the Western States Hockey League; another, Derek, runs the pro shop in the team's Escondido arena. Carlyle and his wife envision retiring here, but at 58 he still wants to coach. He hopes watching games will boost his candidacy for jobs that open this summer, and he'd be a good choice for a team seeking an old-school coach.
"I think it's important that you have an understanding of what's happening in all facets of the league. That's what I'm trying to do, stay educated and stay on top of what's going on," he said. "The whole idea is to make sure you're paying attention to what people are doing, if there are any changes, and there's always subtle changes that you notice, little things that are taking place out there."
•Saturday was the 30th anniversary of Bobby Carpenter of the Washington Capitals becoming the first U.S.-born player to score 50 goals in a season. It was also the day his daughter Alex, a member of the 2014 U.S. Olympic women's hockey team and a standout at Boston College, won the Patty Kazmaier award as the top player in women's college hockey. Nice timing.
•With more than 9,000 season-ticket deposits on file for a prospective team in Las Vegas, lead investor Bill Foley bought a home in the area and is setting up an office, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported. The NHL is paying attention. "We speak to them regularly," Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said via email.