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A Special Kind of Player

by Rich Hammond / Los Angeles Kings

In every sense of the word, Mike Richards is a "special" player.

In even-strength situations, Richards’ puck-handling and decision-making set him apart. If judged only on that, he would be a valued center on any NHL team. When there’s a man in the penalty box, though, that’s when Richards does the work that truly sets him apart, work that has transformed the Kings this season.

In special-teams situations, the Kings simply look like a different team with Richards on the ice. On the power play, he is unabashed about taking the puck to the net to create scoring opportunities. And, well, the same is true on the penalty kill, where he is not only a strong defender but also a threat to score.

Heading into Tuesday’s game against St. Louis, Richards was tied for the team lead with five power-play assists and was one of only five players in the NHL this season to score two shorthanded goals.

None of this is news to the Kings, who acquired Richards in late June from Philadelphia in exchange for Wayne Simmonds and Brayden Schenn.

The Kings’ coaching staff and front office is dotted with folks who worked in the Flyers organization when Richards broke into the NHL and established his name.

What did they see? A tireless worker with a great on-ice IQ. An aggressor who makes strong decisions with the puck and always seems to have a plan when it’s on his stick (and often before it’s on his stick). An all-around player who doesn’t dominate in any one area but who is a fearless and tireless worker.

"He’s a special kind of a player,’’ said Kings coach Terry Murray, formerly a Flyers assistant coach when Richards played in Philadelphia. ``Is he blessed with the most skill in the league? No.
Is he the fastest guy in the league? No. But what he brings is an innate skill that the good players have. It’s that compete, that ability to get to that zone where you’re just in the game and everything is in tune. The timing is right. Good things happen because you’re able to arrive there. He’s one of those guys who gets to that level.’’

Nowhere is that more evident than on special teams.

Last season, the Kings ranked 19th in the NHL in power-play efficiency. This season, they’re ninth. The difference? It’s Richards.

Richards has six power-play points this season, not among the NHL’s elite for that statistic, but even when his efforts don’t directly lead to a goal, he remains a threat.

Too often last season, the Kings’ power play was predictable. Murray largely prefers to play the percentages, and try to score from blue-line shots with traffic in front of the net, but too often, the Kings lacked movement, and their point shots and cross-ice one-timers seemed telegraphed and easy to see and stop.

Enter Richards. When he gets the puck in the middle of one of the faceoff circles, it’s nearly impossible to predict what he will do.

Will he pass to the opposite circle for a one-timer? Drop it back to the defenseman? Or, with a burst, take the puck to the net, flick a wrist shot and try to catch the goalie off guard?

It’s that lack of predictability that makes Richards a threat and has given the Kings a new dimension.

"I think when you don’t have just a set play, where (Anze Kopitar) is on the half-wall and you can interchange, you can set up on different sides, you’re able to throw different looks at them, so they can’t pre-scout us,’’ Richards said. "If you look at our goals right now, on the power play, they’re not just set plays where Kopi is on the half-wall, guys in the front of the net and a shot. it’s coming off the weak side, it’s coming in with different styles and a lack of predictability. I think that’s the biggest thing.

"For us, I know we look at video of what the other team wants to do, and their tendencies. When you switch things up, it’s tough to look at and pre-scout, because you’re always changing things up, and if they show one look then we do a different look. So you’re always thinking. You always try to think the game as much as possible, and make their PKers hesitate a little by thinking about what we’re going to do."

But it’s not just the penalty-killers who hesitate when Richards is on the ice.

Of Richards’ 141 career NHL goals, an astounding total of 25 have come in shorthanded situations. In the past week, two Western Conference teams learned what a threat Richards can be shorthanded.

In Thursday’s game against Anaheim and in Saturday’s game against Detroit, Richards used a burst of speed to get to a loose puck, skated in and scored a shorthanded goal. Again, while Richards isn’t the fastest skater, he’s determined, and both times he caught opposing power-players a bit flat-footed.

"I think the biggest thing is, I feel, as a guy on the power play, you sometimes get complacent," Richards said. "Sometimes, when you go the other way, you just get so focused on the puck that there’s other people. I’m just not shy to jump up. Obviously you kill the penalty first, but if you can get good reads and jump on plays, the coaching staff, wherever I’ve been, have always given me free reign to do it."

Richards has averaged 2 minutes, 21 seconds, of penalty-kill time per game this season, second among forwards behind Kopitar (2:41).

"Very high IQ on the ice,'' Murray said. "You see that especially on penalty-kill situations, where he anticipates. He reads stick. He reads eyes. He reads body. He anticipates and gets the big play, the big turnover, and a lot of times he will take advantage and make something happen at the other end.''

Here’s the interesting part: the Kings think Richards is capable of much more, and they might be correct.

Richards scored eight goals in his first 20 games, which would put him on pace for a 30-goal season. Richards had two 30-goal seasons before he dipped to 23 last season, and he had a career-high 80 points with the Flyers in 2008-09. Richards also has 50 points in 63 career playoff games.

That paints Richards as a big-game performer, and after two consecutive first-round playoff series losses, the Kings will increasingly look to Richards as the situations get more intense and important.

"He’s a very good player and I do have very high expectations,’’ Murray said. "He’s a better player than what he has shown yet this year, in my opinion. I’ve seen it. I know he is. That comes out later on, maybe. All of these games are critical games, important games, mind you, but as you get to that, as they say, post-All Star break, when the games are very meaningful, that’s when a player like that brings it to the next level, and we see good things on a consistent basis."

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