EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- Mike Richards' locker was cleaned out and already taken by right wing Jordan Nolan at the Los Angeles Kings' practice facility Monday. The space was literally about five feet from where Richards sat for his introductory press conference four years ago when he was traded to the Kings.
Center - LAK
GOALS: 5 | ASST: 10 | PTS: 15
SOG: 58 | +/-: -7
The quick removal might seem cold, but it was the only option left for Kings general manager Dean Lombardi, who put Richards on waivers. Lombardi could no longer justify paying the underperforming Richards, especially with the pending unrestricted free agency of right wing Justin Williams
, center Jarret Stoll
and defenseman Robyn Regehr
"That's the thing we've got to work through," Lombardi said. "Mike, in his career, he's shown he can be a .330 hitter and get you 80 RBIs and be an All-Star player. So maybe at this stage, maybe it's not there. But I still think he's capable of being a .280 hitter and do a lot of those things that only he can do. Basically, right now he's batting .200. But I don't see any reason why he can't get back to that. He's got to do what he's got to do."
Other teams have until Tuesday morning to claim Richards. Otherwise, he will be sent to Manchester of the American Hockey League to work on his game.
Lombardi said Richards could return. But the move was somewhat of a message to the struggling Kings, who are 2-4-5 in their past 11 games and out of the Stanley Cup Playoff picture.
"As players, we understand that it's a business. But at the same time, in here we're family so it's really hard to see [Richards] go on waivers," Kings captain Dustin Brown said. "I think we all understand it. We're not winning. … It's also what management feels is best for the team. As players, we deal in a lot of things. It's just not very often you see a player of [Richards'] stature go on waivers."
There was speculation last season that Lombardi would exercise the buyout option on Richards, but he hoped bringing him back would motivate the 29-year-old center.
"I think it was a combination of that," Lombardi said. "We expect loyalty from our players, and I think it's a two-way street. Under the circumstances, what he had done for us, I thought he deserved a chance to get back to what everyone knows he was capable of. It's a hard balance."
Richards was on pace for nine goals and 26 assists this season. He was ninth in ice time among Kings forwards at 13:42 per game, by far the lowest of his 10-season career. The Kings were thought to be making Richards a healthy scratch for the first time in his NHL career Jan. 10, but Tyler Toffoli sat after he was diagnosed with mononucleosis.
Richards has five full seasons remaining on a 12-year contract extension that he signed with the Philadelphia Flyers in Dec. 2007. His annual average salary-cap charge is $5.75 million.
The Kings have other roster questions looming because of Stoll, Williams and Regehr; forwards Toffoli, Tanner Pearson and goalie Martin Jones, among others, will become restricted free agents.
Richards was a four-time 20-goal scorer with the Flyers, but he didn't approach that pace after the Kings' 2011-12 Stanley Cup season, when Los Angeles went 38-21-15 with him in the lineup. He was runner-up for the Selke Trophy in 2008-09 as the League's top defensive forward and finished in the top 10 in voting two other times.
Kings coach Darryl Sutter has defended Richards throughout most of his Kings career and did so again Monday.
"Mike's been a really good player for us, obviously, and he's had a tough year this year," Sutter said. "It's natural for people on the outside to have all the answers. But Mike still has lots of game left and he's been frustrated with it this year too."
Richards is the only player to win the Stanley Cup, Calder Cup, Memorial Cup, an Olympic gold medal and a World Junior Championship gold medal.
"I don't think there's any question we don't win that first Cup without what he did for this team," Lombardi said. "But you've got to be a certain level here that has to get done."