forward Mike Richards
admits he's no different now than he was when he entered the League as a wide-eyed rookie three seasons ago.
"I haven't changed," Richards told NHL.com. "I just enjoy coming to the rink and playing hockey. I think if you change your game, you put too much pressure on yourself and that's when you start trying to do too much and wind up hurting your team."
Interesting point, but with all due respect, Richards is different. Sure, he might feel as though he's performing each shift with the same ferocity as he did in his first season in 2005-06, but there's no denying the fact he's more mature, more secure in his role and, perhaps most importantly, more respected.
On top of that, the 23-year-old center was named the 17th captain in the franchise history prior to the start of the 2008-09 season. How could earning a "C" on your sweater not change the way you play and view the game? Ask any Flyers fan and they'll tell you being named captain of their team isn't something to be taken lightly, and that's precisely why those same fans are ecstatic to have Richards leading the team for the foreseeable future.
Learn more about Richards Thursday night at 8 p.m. ET, when the NHL Network presents "Captains Driven By Bridgestone," a 20-part original series that will feature Richards.
"There are a lot of different things he's doing this year," Flyers coach John Stevens
said. "I really believe he's becoming the player he was on the junior and American Hockey League level. We use him on the power play, the penalty kill and he's shown an ability to produce offensively while still being able to maintain his defensive responsibilities."
There's a lot to like about Richards, who signed a 12-year contract extension in December 2007, and registered an assist in his first All-Star Game appearance last season. In 2007-08, he won the Bobby Clarke
Trophy as the team's most valuable player while leading the Flyers in assists (47), points (75), shorthanded goals (5) and average time on ice among forwards (21:30). He was tied for the team lead in game-winning goals (6) and ranked second in hits (110).
Through 29 games this season, Richards is motoring along once again with 12 goals, 34 points and a plus-15 rating while averaging 22:31 in ice time. He leads the team with 50 hits and shares the League-lead with teammate Simon Gagne
with 4 shorthanded goals, and his two overtime goals are tied for second in the League, behind only teammate Jeff Carter
The fire in Richards' eyes each shift and during every practice is something to behold. He's usually the one rapping his stick against the side boards while awaiting his turn in a drill. He's also the first one to drop the gloves in game situations when he feels an injustice has been done.
"Being one of the younger players on this team, Mike has been one of my close friends ever since I arrived in Philly (from Nashville in February 2007) and helped me through the transition of being traded," Flyers forward Scottie Upshall
, 25, said. "When I started to get to know him as a person, you really began to see his leadership traits and how much of a competitor he really is."
Richards already has earned comparisons to a few of the legendary Flyers captains with his merciless style of play, including Hockey Hall of Famer Bobby Clarke
"It's tough to see how Bobby Clarke
played because usually I'm just watching quick game highlights or video of him carrying the Stanley Cup around the Spectrum when they won it all," Richards said. "It's nice to hear those comparisons, but really, as captain for the Flyers, I play for the guys in the locker room more than anyone else. We have great fan support and everyone is passionate, but really, it's the 23 guys in the locker room that you want to go and play hard for."
Upshall has witnessed that tenacity each game.
"Every night, he's the guy we follow," Upshall said. "He's putting his body on the line and is the hardest worker. He goes out, scores big goals and makes plays, and that's kind of everything you would look for in a captain. And the fact he's just 23 years old means the future is really bright for Philadelphia's leadership."
Flyers rookie defenseman Luca Sbisa
, just 18, also has benefitted from Richards' leadership.
"He's been a great captain, and he's not only a leader on the ice, but off the ice, too," Sbisa said. "I see him as a person I can really look up to."
One area of Richards' game that has improved dramatically has been his reckless pursuit. Now, he attacks the puck with a defined purpose.
"He's learned to limit his risk a little more," Stevens said. "I think he was trying to do too much early in his career and some of those turnovers got him in trouble, but now he manages his game better and seems to make the right play more times than not, so now he's in a situation where he can play against the other team's top players and produce while not giving a whole lot the other way."
Richards admits it's a lot easier to lead a team that's having some measure of success, which is something the club has certainly experienced lately. That wasn't the case at the start of the season, when the Flyers opened the 2008-09 campaign 0-3-3.
"A couple of things needed to be said at the start of the year when we weren't playing well since we weren't very disciplined, but you never need to embarrass anybody in front of the team," Richards said. "You maybe pull them aside or something and say it to them. But there's no question my first couple of months as captain have been interesting.
"Lately, instead of losing by one goal, we're winning by one goal and that's because of hard work."
Former Flyers defenseman Jason Smith
, who was the team's captain last season, certainly left a lasting impression on Richards.
"He was a very hands-on captain," Richards said. "He just went out there, played hard and played the game the way Flyer fans expect it should be played -- hard-nosed. He never complained even though he suffered a couple of injuries late in the year and he always participated in practice despite the fact he was hurting. He always kept things positive and there was never a time I didn't see him with a smile on his face."
While dropping the gloves and mixing it up with an opposing player isn't in his job description as captain, Richards rarely will back down.
"Fighting is the job of some guys and I realize it's not my job, but I also never want someone else to take liberties with any of our players," Richards said. "There are so many different things that can change the outcome of a hockey game, be it a big hit or big shift. There are different things you can do to change momentum of hockey games and, fortunately, fighting is one of them."
Contact Mike Morreale at email@example.com