When the Los Angeles Kings traded for Mike Richards in June 2011, it was a given that they had landed a cornerstone center for years to come. Richards was regarded as one of the finest 200-foot young forwards in the NHL.
The team did not envision Richards devolving into a fourth-line grinder who finished last season playing between Kyle Clifford and Trevor Lewis. The former captain of the Philadelphia Flyers had his lowest offensive output since his rookie season in 2006-07 with 11 goals and 30 assists. Yet general manager Dean Lombardi refused to use a buyout on Richards, who has six seasons remaining on the 12-year, $69 million contract he signed with Philadelphia in 2007.
Instead, Lombardi said it's crucial for Richards to rebound.
"If you look at it and say, 'If Michael gets back to just being an average Mike Richards,' that would improve this team more than anything," Lombardi said. "He gives us the best potential to be a better team than we were last year. It's sitting right there. The team is most important. [But] I just can't imagine him accepting second fiddle to some of his peers. That's why I stuck with him in the end. I believe deep down that this guy has got too much."
Richards actually got off to a great start last season with six goals and 13 assists in the first 25 games. He filled the void left by slow-starting captain Dustin Brown, and it was reasonable to think that it was Richards' team more than Brown's in the first few weeks.
But Richards went into a prolonged slump. He had one goal in 36 games, from Nov. 30 to Feb. 27, and in December was moved from a line with Jeff Carter. Richards, a member of Canada's gold-medal 2010 Vancouver Olympics team, was never in the conversation for the 2014 Sochi Olympics, and in January he admitted his lack of production was disappointing.
"It's been frustrating," Richards said. "But I'm not a natural goal scorer as Jeff would be. I have to kind of earn what I get. I have to stop looking for the pass-first mentality that I usually come with and try to get pucks to the net more."
Richards did improve in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, including a goal in Game 7 of the Western Conference Second Round Series. His value was more in being able to counter the opponent's centers and in his big-game experience as the Kings won three straight Game 7s.
"Michael being Michael gives you enormous potential up front now, whether he's going with Carter or the kids, it gives your coach enormous [options]," Lombardi said. "I don't know how you match up. If [Tyler] Toffoli and [Tanner] Pearson keep coming and Michael is being Michael, and [Jarret] Stoll. How are you going to beat that? But that's very different from having to put Michael in a role where you're almost hiding him.
"Now, the irony is, even when you're doing that, he still shows up in big moments. That's the thing that makes you want to stick with him now, and inherently out of loyalty to players who have done so much to get this franchise to a certain point."
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Author: Curtis Zupke | NHL.com Correspondent