Kings General Manager Dean Lombardi drifted over to another sport — using a baseball analogy — to describe the perplexing decline of center Mike Richards, whom the team placed on waivers Monday.
“Mike, through his career, has shown he can be a .330 hitter, 80 RBIs, an All-Star player,” Lombardi said. “Maybe at this stage, maybe it’s not fair, but I still think he is capable of being a .280 hitter and [can] do a lot of those things for you that only he can do.
“Let’s face it: right now he’s batting .200. I don’t see any reason why he can’t get back to that. He’s gotta do what he’s gotta do.”
For the better part of two years, the Kings have been waiting patiently for Richards to regain his stroke. On Monday, they finally wavered.
Any NHL team can claim him until 9 a.m. Tuesday. If Richards, 29, clears waivers — and based on the length and terms of his contract, there is every indication that he will — then the Kings could assign him to their minor league affiliate in Manchester, N.H., and gain some salary cap relief.
“Mike’s been a really good player for us, obviously,” Kings Coach Darryl Sutter said. “He’s had a tough year this year. It’s natural for people on the outside to want to have all the answers. Mike’s still got lots of game left and he’s been frustrated with it this year, too.
”. . . Lots of players go on waivers. Lots of players clear waivers. And lots of players still have great years in front of them.”
Richards has a $5.75-million cap hit for five more years beyond this one, on a 12-year, $69-million contract the Kings inherited when they acquired him from the Philadelphia Flyers in a trade for Wayne Simmonds and Brayden Schenn.
Richards was an integral part of the Kings’ 2012 Stanley Cup championship, and although his role was diminished last spring when they won the Cup again, he did manage 10 points in 26 playoff games. This year, Richards has five goals and 15 points in 47 games and is a minus-seven. Since Nov. 22, he has scored just once.
Monday’s decision was no small matter in terms of team chemistry.
“As players we understand it is a business, but at the same time, in here we’re family,” said Kings captain Dustin Brown. “So it’s really hard to see Rick go on waivers. I think we all understand it, but it’s not something that you take lightly as a group of guys, especially a group of guys that have won together.”
The Kings considered issuing Richards a compliance buyout last summer, which would have eradicated his cap hit from their payroll, but team officials decided to bring him back in the hope that he would regain his scoring touch.
It didn’t happen. Sutter has used Richards mostly in a fourth-line role, which makes him an expensive luxury the team can no longer afford.
Forward Justin Williams, the reigning playoff MVP, has a contract that expires this summer and the Kings are working on signing him to an extension — something they’ll need to clear cap room to do. The Kings have been exploring trade options for Richards but so far have been unable to find a taker for his contract.
“It reminds you that we’re in the business of professional sports,” Kings defenseman Robyn Regehr said. “And that business is winning. And when a team isn’t winning consistently enough, there’s changes that are usually made.
“Sometimes it comes down to other decisions with economics, things like that, now in the salary-cap era. . . . I don’t want to say it’s a good reminder but those things happen sometimes. Whether it’s getting traded or waived or anything like that, it’s part of a very big business we’re involved with.”