Back in early November, when Caps general manager Brian MacLellan began seriously considering signing Mike Richards as a free agent, there were several hurdles he needed to clear.
The first was gathering enough information to determine whether Richards, 30, was dealing with any kind of dependency issues after being arrested at the Canadian border last summer for possession of oxycodone.
There were also legal issues hanging over Richards. A hearing scheduled for early December was postponed until Jan. 28 and there were reports that hearing could be postponed as Richards’ attorneys gathered information to defend his not-guilty plea.
The Caps began by talking with Justin Williams, who played parts of four seasons with Richards in Los Angeles, winning two Stanley Cups. (Like Williams, Richards is also 7-0 in Game 7s in his playoff career).
Williams told CSN Mid-Atlantic that he talked with Richards more about his life than about hockey, saying that if Richards was in a good mental state he could “definitely” help the Capitals.
MacLellan already was convinced that if Richards could play with the determination he showed in the first nine years of his career, when he played in three Stanley Cup Finals, he was worth pulling out of his personal purgatory.
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Richards’ proficiency on faceoffs, penalty killing and hard-nosed play could be a perfect fit for a team with a legitimate shot at winning the Stanley Cup.
But with the Capitals ascending to the top of the Eastern Conference standings, MacLellan had to weigh the risks of disrupting a good thing, both on the ice and in the locker room.
Would Richards become a distraction?
MacLellan and head coach Barry Trotz knew there was only way to find out and the two took the next big step, meeting with Richards to see for themselves if Richards thought he might be a good fit in Washington.
Apparently, they all agreed he could.
And when Jay Beagle suffered a hand injury that will keep him out of action six weeks, the Caps decided to roll the dice and signed Richards to a one-year, $1 million contract.
The Caps are gambling that Richards is the missing piece to their Stanley Cup puzzle. They are gambling that he will fill the void left by Beagle on the penalty kill and in the faceoff circle while providing some offensive punch.
They are gambling that when Beagle returns they’ll have a lineup featuring Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Richards and Beagle down the middle, with Richards and Beagle battling for the third spot.
And they are gambling that Richards has the legs and hockey sense that made him such a valuable member of the Kings and Flyers.
But it was the fact the Capitals were able to acquire Richards without giving up a player from their roster that most attracted them. And with a prorated cap hit of just $500,000 Richards might be the perfect fit for a team that sees a championship for the taking.
The next five or six months will determine if they were right.
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