To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first NHL Draft, NHL.com assembled a 13-member panel to select the best first-round picks of all time, based on selection number. NHL.com will feature one of the top first-round picks each day, beginning with the best No. 30 pick on June 1 and culminating with the all-time No. 1 pick on June 30, the day of the 2013 NHL Draft.
Philadelphia's own pick was at No. 24, and they had a wish list of players they thought would be available. They ended up taking one they never thought would drop to them: center Mike Richards from the Kitchener Rangers of the Ontario Hockey League.
Richards has won a Stanley Cup and an Olympic gold medal, and now has been named the best No. 24 first-round pick by the 13-member NHL.com Dream Draft panel.
After the Flyers selected Richards, he spent two more seasons with Kitchener, where he served as captain. He also captained the powerhouse Canada team at the 2005 IIHF World Junior Championship to a gold medal. After the 2004-05 junior season ended, he joined the Flyers' American Hockey League affiliate, the Philadelphia Phantoms, and had 15 points in 14 playoff games to help that team win the Calder Cup.
Richards made his NHL debut the following season, scoring a goal in his first game, a loss to the New York Rangers on Oct. 5, 2005. He had 11 goals and 34 points in 79 games as a rookie; his second season was short-circuited by sports hernia surgery and he had 32 points in 59 games.
That 2006-07 season also saw a shift in the Philadelphia front office. General manager Bob Clarke retired in October 2006, and his successor, Paul Holmgren, replaced coach Ken Hitchcock with assistant coach John Stevens, who had coached Richards in the AHL.
Richards blossomed under Stevens, earning ice time in all situations. In December 2007, Richards signed the biggest contract in Flyers history -- 12 years for $68.4 million -- and responded by leading the team in points (75), shorthanded goals (five), game-winning goals (six) and faceoff winning percentage (50.5). He added 14 points in 17 Stanley Cup Playoff games as the Flyers went from No. 30 in the League standings to the Eastern Conference Final in one season.
Richards was named captain at the start of the 2008-09 season, scored 30 goals, and was the runner-up for the Frank J. Selke Trophy as the League's best defensive forward. He had a personal-best 31 goals the following season playing all 82 games, and had 23 points in 23 playoff games as the Flyers reached the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1997.
In June 2011, Richards was traded to the Los Angeles Kings in a stunning deal, but one that helped him immeasurably. He was able to step out of an uncomfortable spotlight in Philadelphia and become another part in the machine in Los Angeles. He had 44 points in 74 games in 2011-12, and 15 points in 20 games as the Kings won their first Stanley Cup.
Richards rebounded offensively this season with 32 points in 48 games.
"Mike Richards will most certainly go down as one of the greatest finds of the 2003 NHL Draft," NHL.com staff writer Mike G. Morreale said. "What makes him so effective is the fact he can play in any situation, has speed and great hockey IQ. It doesn't hurt that he's succeeded wherever he's been."