LOS ANGELES, Calif. - Mike Richards played for the Stanley Cup just two years ago in Philadelphia. He believes a summer trade to the Los Angeles Kings put him in position to contend again.
After a decade of false starts and small improvements, the Kings firmly believe they have the depth, talent and experience to join the NHL's elite. The arrival of Richards, a talented two-way centre and the former Flyers captain, is among the biggest reasons Los Angeles intends to take the next step toward its first Stanley Cup.
"I know it's early, but we have a very similar makeup (to the 2008-09 Flyers)," Richards said. "We've got a lot of depth at forward, good defencemen, and a steady goaltender situation where we have two guys who can step in at any time."
After consecutive first-round ousters from the playoffs, the Kings are back with a talented roster in front of goalies Jonathan Quick and Jonathan Bernier. Goal-scoring was Los Angeles' biggest weakness last season, so general manager Dean Lombardi acquired Richards and Simon Gagne, who teamed together in Philadelphia for several prolific seasons.
"We feel we can compete for the Stanley Cup, and that's what we're preparing for," defenceman Willie Mitchell said. "The big thing is when your general manager and the ownership goes out and makes the moves and spends the money that they did, it's a vote of confidence in us as a group to say that they think we're ready. It's like anything in life. When people believe in you, you tend to get the best out of people."
The Kings finally wrapped up their off-season business on Thursday night, 13 days into camp, when defenceman Drew Doughty agreed to an eight-year, US$56 million contract. The 21-year-old prodigy held out for an enormous new deal, and the already-high expectations on the 2010 Norris Trophy finalist will be even larger now.
Doughty claims he welcomes the scrutiny, believing he can add more dimensions to his already formidable game as a puck-moving defenceman with an aggressive mean streak.
"I'm not happy that I had to go through all that," Doughty said. "But it's done, and I'm happy I'm here. I apologize to all those who had to patiently wait for me to get here."
Doughty's teammates watched the summer-long drama with amusement at the young defenceman's friendly standoff with the Kings.
"Now we can worry about getting ready for the season, because it's important that we get off to a good start," Kings captain Dustin Brown said. "Towards the end here, I kept teasing him: 'You'd better sign soon so you can get me Starbucks on the road.' We've had a ritual since he's been a rookie, so I don't care how much money he's making, he's still getting me Starbucks in the morning."
Although Lombardi has stressed continuity throughout his tenure with the Kings, he picked up three important forwards in the past year to boost a roster that's strong on homegrown talent, but sometimes lacks scoring punch. The Kings expect a big season from physical forward Dustin Penner, who reported to camp in excellent shape after a mediocre performance last season following his arrival.
The Kings shuffled a few forwards in the off-season, not entirely by choice. Veteran Ryan Smyth demanded a trade to league-worst Edmonton, and Michal Handzus left as a free agent for San Jose.
Lombardi swung a trade for Richards, giving up prospect Brayden Schenn and gritty forward Wayne Simmonds, and signed Gagne, a seven-time 20-goal scorer who spent last season in Tampa Bay. Los Angeles also added Ethan Moreau, and longtime Islanders forward Trent Hunter also earned a roster spot with a strong training camp.
Richards will centre the Kings' second line, and he's already picking up the nuances of Los Angeles' style. That's no surprise: Kings coach Terry Murray and assistant coach John Stevens had the same roles, albeit reversed, with the Flyers a few years ago.
"The most important thing about what we're starting to do here in L.A. is that (core) group of players that have been together for four, five or six years now," Brown said. "You try to build the type of culture you want here, then you bring in a guy like Mike and it only enhances it, because he's brought into the group right away and there's no fragmentation amongst the team."
Murray still hasn't determined whether Richards and Gagne will play together, as they did in Philadelphia, but he has no doubt they'll boost the flair of a team that sometimes plodded through last season.
"They're both great players," Murray said. "Last year we had some difficulty in the offensive part of the game, 5-on-5, and that was identified and addressed. So this should do some good things with our game on that side of the puck, and also on the back end."
The Kings start the season on an epic road trip: They head to Europe this weekend for an exhibition and their first two regular-season games in Stockholm and Berlin before playing two games on the East Coast on the way back to California.
When they finally return for their home opener Oct. 18, the Kings can get down to work on the steady business of preparing for the playoffs.
"I think we've got the best team we've had since I've been here," said centre Anze Kopitar, the Kings' leading scorer. "It's exciting to add some talented guys to a team that's already pretty good. I think we've got everything we need."