could be the poster child for all that went wrong for the Philadelphia Flyers
The former first-round draft pick suffered through shoulder and abdominal injuries, and when he did play, he wasn’t very good, finishing with just 10 goals, 32 points and a minus-12 rating in 59 games.
He also was one of the players least upset when coach Ken Hitchcock was let go in October, and showed it by scoring his first goal of the season – a game-winner, in fact – against the Columbus Blue Jackets in Hitchcock’s first game behind their bench.
“Last year was tough,” said Flyers coach John Stevens, who replaced Hitchcock eight games into the season. “I think last year we got into a situation where our team started to struggle, the young guys started to lose confidence.”
Richards also lost five weeks due to surgery to fix a sports hernia in December, and also missed time with a separated left shoulder in March. Missing the playoffs, though, gave him extra time to rehabilitate and recuperate, and so far, outside of a nasty 12-stitch gash on his nose suffered in a fight with Washington’s Brooks Laich on Nov. 2, he’s been healthy.
“It’s nice to play with a body you don’t have to maintain every night,” Richards said. “It feels good to go out there and just play your game. … When you play healthy you’re obviously a lot stronger and faster. This year I feel good. I rehabbed really hard in the offseason, so it’s nice to play healthy for once.”
That health has propelled him to the top of the team’s leaderboard with 10 goals, and his 20 points lead the team in scoring after 17 games.
Richards isn’t just scoring, he’s become what Stevens calls an “all-situation guy,” playing on the power play, the penalty kill, playing against the other team’s best players while centering a top-two line, and developing into a leader on and off the ice.
In addition to leading the Flyers in overall scoring, Richards has three short-handed goals, three game-winners and has won more than 52 percent of his faceoffs. His short-handed goal Monday night against the Islanders was the game-winner, and he has six points in his last four games.
“As far as penalty killing and faceoffs, putting a player of his age on the point, you don’t see too many young guys other than the super-skilled players like (Ilya) Kovalchuk, (Alex) Ovechkin playing the point,’’ teammate Joffrey Lupul told reporters. “He’s back there and he does a great job. Every situation he’s put in, he’s excelled in. So I think a lot of it is being given the opportunity. He’s taken advantage of it. He’s been our key guy.’’
When the Flyers tabbed Richards with the 24th overall choice in the 2003 draft, he immediately drew comparisons to Flyers’ Hall of Famer Bobby Clarke due to their leadership abilities. Richards has been the captain of every team he has played on, including the Team Canada entry that won the 2005 World Junior Championship.
This season, Stevens named Richards an assistant captain, giving the 22-year-old native of Kenora, Ontario, a bigger bite of the team.
“He got the ‘A’ because he earned the right to wear the ‘A’,” Stevens said. “He’s a guy we thought a lot of from Day 1. We really think he’s matured to the point where we have a lot of young players on our team and we consider him a young leader on our hockey team. He’s been a leader everywhere he’s been and we feel like he’s ready for that responsibility now. We figured he’d take that responsibility seriously and he has. He leads by example. He shows up to the rink to work every day, both practice and games. He’s got the character that you want in your leaders.”
Richards’ approach also has impressed his teammates.
“He plays like he’s a lot older than he is,’’ teammate R.J. Umberger said. “He’s not looked at as a young guy. Everybody knew coming in here he was a good leader. It’s his third year, there’s a big difference. He’s got a lot of confidence, a lot of poise. He’s acting like a veteran guy now. That’s big for our team. He’s really grabbing it and everyone is following.’’
Richards said he hasn’t changed his approach to the game: “It’s an honor to have it (the assistant captaincy), but you don’t have to do anything different. I haven’t changed anything about me.”
Others, though, have seen a change.
|"He's acting like a veteran guy now. That’s big for our team. He’s really grabbing it and everyone is following."
-- Flyers' teammate R.J. Umberger on Mike Richards
“You could see he’s ready to get to that next level,” said teammate Simon Gagne. “As a young guy sometimes you’re in the shadows of veterans. You may be shy, take just a little bit of space. That’s how I was when I was younger and I’m sure Richey feels the same. This year the best thing that Johnny did with him was give him the ‘A’ on the jersey, give him some responsibility. … He’s taking that challenge and right now he’s doing a great job. It’s helping him take it to the next level.”
Another change has been in refining Richards’ role. Rather than relying on him solely as a shut-down defensive center, he’s been used in offensive situations, and on the point on the power play. Richards had 36- and 37-goal seasons in junior, but just 21 in his first two NHL campaigns.
“We redefined his role a little bit,” said Stevens. “We opened up the opportunities offensively. I think there always were the questions if he could do offensively what he did in juniors and the American League (15 points in 14 2005 playoff games), and I think the answer is yes. I think the main thing is he doesn’t let go of his responsibility of who he’s playing against. If he’s out playing against the other team’s top line, which he’s done, he’s always on the right side of things. He’s got great vision with the puck, we’ve used him on the power play and he’s been great there. He’s really become an all-situation guy and he’s done a great job in every conceivable situation for us.”
Richards sees the offensive opportunities as a reward for what he’s been able to do with the rest of his game, including leading the team in faceoffs taken (316), faceoff winning percentage (52.5 percent), and takeaways (11).
“You don’t want to take advantage of it too much,” he said of the scoring chances. “It gives you a little more leeway to make plays. I’ve tried different things off the rush, but at the same time you don’t want to hurt the team by turning pucks over.”
Nothing he’s done has hurt the Flyers, who have started 11-6 (a far cry from last year’s 3-12-2 record after 17 games last season), and with 22 points, hold a three-point lead in the Atlantic Division over the New York Rangers.
“The only thing missing in Mike Richards before was being an established NHL player with experience,” said Stevens. “You loved everything about him. The question mark was his experience at this level.”
In his third year, he’s a veritable veteran on a team that nightly features more than a half-dozen new faces. But all the winning has helped a new-look roster jell in short-order.
“The new guys we brought in are great team guys,” said Richards. “This is probably one of the tightest-knit teams I’ve ever been on. Everyone’s having fun. You can tell in the dressing room, everyone’s excited to be there. When you enjoy being around everybody you play for them that much harder.”