EL SEGUNDO - When the Los Angeles Kings won the Stanley Cup two years ago, Mike Richards played close to 20 minutes a game. This time around he’s barely playing 15. Richards' star has indeed fallen in Hollywood, which has led to speculation that the Kings could use a compliance buyout on him even if they go on to win the Stanley Cup.
It’s a vexing dilemma for the Kings, who face having Richards and his $5.75 million salary cap hit on the books for each of the next six seasons. They could magically make that disappear with one stroke of a pen by buying him out this summer and if they don’t do it now, the opportunity to make that cap hit go away without a penalty will be lost forever.
If the Kings want to re-sign Marian Gaborik, who leads the playoffs in goals, it might be at the expense of Richards. But even beyond next season, the Kings are faced with Justin Williams and Jarret Stoll becoming unrestricted free agents after 2014-15 and Tyler Toffoli, Tanner Pearson and Jake Muzzin becoming restricted free agents in two summers. And looking even further ahead, Anze Kopitar has only two more years left on his deal. So the Kings are going to need some cap room, even if the salary cap goes up as revenues begin to climb.
So you can see why the speculation would be there. Richards had a terrible season by anyone’s standards and the Kings are quietly not so enamored of his physical conditioning and approach to the game. With Kopitar installed as the No. 1 center and Jeff Carter picking up the responsibility as the center and mentor on That 70’s Line with Pearson and Toffoli on either side of him, Richards has become a little marginalized.
Yes, he plays well in big games and he can play a two-way game, but that’s a lot of commitment to make to a player who does only that, particularly when the reliable Stoll is part of the equation. But then again, he is there when the Kings really need him, the way he was in Game 1 when he pounced on Dan Girardi’s turnover and got the puck to Williams for the overtime winner. The Kings don’t need Richards to be great during the regular season if he can deliver the way he does time and again during the playoffs.
The Kings are not a team that is built for the regular season. They are a team that plays its best during the playoffs and Richards is a perfect example of that. The Kings seem to be able to muddle their way through regular seasons with players such as Richards and Dustin Brown having disastrous seasons as long as they can produce the way they have in the playoffs.
Richards enjoys a healthy relationship with coach Darryl Sutter and Kings GM Dean Lombardi doesn’t seem the type to throw away $19.3 million in real dollars in buyout money. That amount would be spread over 12 years with an annual check of $1.6 million being cut to Richards, but that is still real money. If anything, the Kings might entertain the thought of trading Richards and any team looking for leadership and a championship resume would have to be interested, even at his high price.
Richards is 29, but there isn’t much short of a World Championship left for him to win. He has won the trifecta of the Memorial, Calder and Stanley Cups, is a World Junior champion and Olympic gold medalist.
“Basically, he just wins,” Sutter said. “It doesn’t matter if you think he’s a first-line centerman or second-line centerman. The only reward for somebody like Mike Richards in all this is winning. He’s all set. He’s won everything, it’s just winning again, that’s all.”
NOTES: Defenseman Robyn Regehr, who has been injured since Game 1 of the Kings second-round series against Anaheim, is ready for duty in Game 2 and in the words of Sutter, “He’ll probably play (Saturday).” It’s likely Matt Greene would come out of the lineup to make room for Regehr…Defenseman Drew Doughty is looking at Game 2 as a must-win situation for the Kings despite the fact they’re up 1-0 in the series. “We need to win this game,” he said. “This game is very important because we’re going back to Madison Square Garden and we know they’re a more comfortable team at home. Just like any team, they’re going to be better at home. We need to get this series up to 2-0 and we’d be more comfortable that way.”