With a father who was adamant about mastering defense first and a former coach in junior hockey who taught him the principles of how to do it, maybe a nomination for the Selke Trophy was always in the offing for Mike Richards
"It's the way I've been brought up playing," Richards, captain of the Philadelphia Flyers
, told NHL.com of his defensive style. "It's instinct and a lot of reaction."
Flyers Senior Vice President Bob Clarke called Richards "the full Canadian package" because he does it all and is "not a very easy guy to play against."
"He can fight, he can check, he can take faceoffs, give assists and is just a terrific playmaker," Clark told NHL.com. "He never has to rely on one part of his game to be an effective player and that's the sign of a complete hockey player."
Richards and many other NHL stars will be in Las Vegas on June 18 for the annual NHL Awards Show. He's up against Detroit's Pavel Datsyuk
and Vancouver's Ryan Kesler
for the Selke Trophy, which goes to the player deemed the best defensive forward.
Datsyuk, who is also a Hart Trophy finalist, took home the Selke last year.
"I've never been nominated for something like this, so it's nice to be recognized for the work you put in," said Richards, who finished the season with a League-best seven shorthanded goals and a career-best plus-22 rating along with 83 takeaways and 90 blocked shots. "I would consider myself a two-way player, but it's nice to be recognized for something you really focus on."
Richards has been focusing on the defensive principles of the game since he was growing up in Kenora, Ont., a city situated in the northwestern part of the province, not far from Winnipeg.
"My dad was very laid back and didn't push me to do anything I didn't want to do, but he kept it in the back of my mind that defense is part of the game," Richards said. "Never be at the far blue line waiting for the breakaway pass. When you get into that mindset, it comes easily."
From Kenora, Richards ventured to Kitchener, which is more than 1,100 miles away in southern Ontario. Former Kitchener Rangers coach Pete DeBoer, who is now the coach of the Florida Panthers
, drilled home the message about defensive hockey.
Soon enough, playing strong against the puck became instinctive for Richards, who had four successful seasons in Kitchener and twice played in the World Junior Championship. He was plus-35 with five shorthanded goals in just his second OHL season.
Richards said his success comes from adhering to those principles DeBoer taught him, such as containment, instincts, stick control and, of course, positioning.
"I think the biggest thing is positioning," Richards said. "Me not being the biggest player (5-foot-11, 195 pounds) I'm not going to outmuscle too many players on the ice, so it's about positioning and having stick in the right spot and being aware of people away from the puck."
Defensive forwards thrive on making life miserable for the opposition, and Richards does it two ways.
Not only is he strong on the puck, but he's one of the best at turning his defense into offense. Richards finished the 2008-09 season with career highs in goals (30), assists (50), points (80) and shots (238). His eight power-play goals tied a career high.
Right now, Datsyuk may be the only forward in the NHL better at transitioning his sound defense into offensive chances. The sneaky Datsyuk had 97 points (4th in the NHL), 89 takeaways (2nd) and a plus-34 rating (3rd) this season.
"There's no question in my mind he's in that category (as best defensive-forward) because we have him playing against the top players every night and he continues to kill penalties and produce offensively while playing big minutes," Flyers coach John Stevens
said. "He's as important to our team as a Datsyuk is to Detroit."
Contact Dan Rosen at email@example.com