Philadelphia Flyers coach John Stevens likens third-year center Mike Richards to that of a silent assassin. He’s quiet, but deadly.
”There’s a quiet competitiveness and fire in him,’’ Stevens told NHL.com. “He’s the guy who leads our team by example, and I’d have it no other way.’’
In just his third season, Richards was tabbed assistant captain in October, signed a team-record contract extension in December, and now is in the midst of the most productive season of his promising career. Additionally, he’ll represent the Eastern Conference in the NHL All-Star Game in Atlanta on Jan. 27.
”It’s been a pretty big season, and having the privilege to play in an All-Star Game is pretty exciting,’’ Richards said. “I’ll be looking forward to being on the same team as (Pittsburgh Penguins center) Sidney Crosby. It’ll be a lot easier playing with Sid instead of having to check him. There are a lot of guys I respect so much and it’ll be nice to have an opportunity to get to know them and see what they’re like off the ice.’’
Stevens has first-hand knowledge of Richards’ maturation as his coach the last four years, including his brief stint with the Philadelphia Phantoms, the Flyers’ American Hockey League affiliate. Stevens coached the Phantoms for six seasons (2000-01 through 2005-06) before taking over as Flyers coach on Oct. 22, 2006.
”He’ll do whatever it takes,’’ said Stevens. “Whether it’s a physical play, scoring a goal or killing a penalty. He possesses that confidence that is just contagious with the rest of the group. It’s very easy to make a case for him playing in the All-Star Game. He leads our team in almost every category, offensively and defensively. I’m proud of the fact he’s been able to put up these offensive numbers, but not at the expense of his defensive play. He’s a young player who does a lot of good things and I feel he’ll make a great account of himself in Atlanta.’’
A first-round pick (24th overall) of the Flyers in the 2003 Entry Draft, Richards, 22, currently leads the Flyers in goals (20), assists (30), points (50), plus/minus (plus-12), shorthanded goals (four), game-winning goals (five) and shots (124) in 44 games. His 34-point accession over last season (4-10-14) after 43 games is the biggest increase among all NHL players.
Richards is quick to note, however, that his offensive outburst is a result of added depth and experience on the team.
”Having Danny (Briere) and (Simon) Gagne on the first line, (Mike) Knuble on the second and (R.J.) Umberger and Kimmo (Timonen) make it a little easier to play in games because everyone is focusing on those guys,’’ Richards said. “It takes some of the attention off myself and my linemates and frees us up.’’
Briere, though, feels Richards is the reason the Flyers are in the playoff hunt; they currently are sixth in the Eastern Conference with 53 points (24-15-5).
”Mike has been amazing and, I feel, our MVP the first half of the season,’’ Briere told NHL.com. “He’s led the way both defensively and offensively. We’ve had many young forwards starting to break out, including Jeff Carter, R.J. Umberger and Joffrey Lupul, but Richie’s probably made the biggest jump at a time when we really needed it.’’
Left wing Simon Gagne agrees.
”He’s reached another level, something we began to see a little bit last year,’’ Gagne said. “The only difference now is that he’s doing it, consistently, every night. He’s the type of player that offers so much in all aspects of the game and, right now, he’s having a dream season.’’
On Dec. 13, Richards and the Flyers agreed on a 12-year contract extension worth $69 million. The new contract will kick in next season and run through the 2019-20 campaign. It’s the second-longest active deal in the NHL, behind the 15-year, $67.5 million contract the New York Islanders gave goalie Rick DiPietro in 2006. It also makes Richards the third-highest paid Flyer, behind Briere (eight years, $52 million) and Timonen (six years, $37.8 million).
Stevens wants Richards to play his style and remain true to himself.
”We made Richie the assistant captain because of the type of person he is,’’ said Stevens. “We’re not asking him to be something he’s not and step out of character.’’
That’s the role Richards has embraced.
”I haven’t taken on too much of a leadership role, to tell you the truth,’’ Richards said. “We have so many leaders in the dressing room. (Captain) Jason Smith is respected so much, not only by our team, but throughout the League. When something needs to be said, Hatch (Derian Hatcher), Briere and Kimmo are always there, so I don’t feel any added pressure. I find that I just need to worry about my game.’’
Prior to joining the Flyers, Richards appeared in 14 playoff games for the Phantoms. He collected seven goals and eight assists to help lead the club to the 2005 Calder Cup championship. In four seasons (2001-02 through 2004-05) with the Kitchener Rangers of the Ontario Hockey League, Richards scored 292 points (115 goals, 177 assists) in 233 regular-season games.
Richards feels the pulse of the city in which he performs and can understand the frustration following a forgettable 2006-07 campaign, which saw the Flyers finish with the lowest point total in the League (22-48-12, 56 points) and its 40-year history.
”The fans of Philadelphia are very passionate and last season they experienced a lot of highs and lows,’’ Richards said. “Even though they’ll display their displeasure at times, that’s expected. They’re a group that will cheer so long as you work hard and play well.’’
Contact Mike G. Morreale at firstname.lastname@example.org