Weeks before the Capitals signed free-agent center Mike Richards to a one-year, prorated, $1 million contract, Caps right wing Justin Williams said Richards’ eventual return to the NHL would be “a great redemption story.”
“Any time your ego takes a hit, which his did, as a proud guy you want to shove it up somebody’s (expletive deleted) and prove something to somebody, even if it’s just yourself,” Williams said.
On Tuesday night at Verizon Center, Richards will have the chance to prove the Los Angeles Kings wrong on so many levels. He says it’s not about that, and never will be.
This time last year, Richards was playing for the AHL Manchester Monarchs, cast off by the Kings after recording five goals, 10 assists, a minus-7 rating and winning less than 50 percent of his faceoffs in 47 games with the Kings.
“I don’t have any,” Richards said when asked if he has any hard feeling about being sent to the minors last season. “I mean, it is what it is. It’s not much help to burn bridges. It’s hockey and I’m happy to be here now and I’m a true believer that everything happens for a reason, so we’ll see how this plays out.”
Being demoted to the AHL was just the start of what became a tumultuous year for Richards, a year that included being charged with possession of a controlled substance, being bought out of his contract by the Kings, and sitting in hockey exile for the first three months of the season.
And then there was the written summation Kings general manager Dean Lombardi gave to the Los Angeles Times, in which he described Richards as his “own Derek Jeter,” only to see him go on a “destructive spiral” that eventually led to his arrest.
Asked how he looks back on his four seasons with the Kings, two of which ended with Stanley Cups, Richards said, “Obviously, it was good. Two Cups and I’ll never complain about that.
“Was there struggles sometimes? Of course, there’s struggles. But at the end of the day we had a really good team and I loved being out there and part of the organization. It was a good group of guys out there, too, so it made it much more enjoyable and obviously having success adds to that.”
Asked specifically about Lombardi and his Derek Jeter comparison, Richards said, “That’s pretty high praise, Derek Jeter. I don’t know how to answer this question to be honest, but I thought at the end our relationship was good, to be honest. Obviously, he had to make some moves and he had to do things he probably didn’t want to do, but at the end of the day I didn’t make it easy on him, either, to keep me around. So, I want to say fault on both parts, but probably more so me than him and he had to do what he had to do to what he thought benefited the L.A. Kings.”
Since signing with the Capitals in early January, Richards has split time between the third and fourth lines and has no points in 10 games while averaging 12 minutes of ice time and winning 55 percent of his faceoffs.
Capitals coach Barry Trotz said Richards’ value to the Caps shows up in ways that cannot be measured on the score sheet. It’s his perfect record in Game 7s during the playoffs. It’s his ability to win a key draw at a crucial moment of a hockey game. It’s his willingness to win a puck battle when a defensive clear is needed.
“His foundation is his detail and the defensive part of the game,” Trotz said. “You can make a pretty good living doing that. It’s all about trust and I have a lot of trust in Mike.”
Trotz said that when he and Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan met with Richards in December, he felt both sides had done their homework on each other.
“I told him we had a team that has a chance,” Trotz said. “We’d be one of the contenders when it comes down to the final 16. I still believe that. I thought he would be a good fit. I think he did some research on me and our staff. I just tried to be honest with him.
“I think he was a player – probably no different than Ovi – where a lot of people make assumptions and a lot of people have perceptions and it’s not necessarily reality. Once you’re in that locker room and you’re playing every night, competing with or against Mike Richards, that’s the only way you find out the person. He’s been as advertised coming in for us.”
Richards, who turned 31 on Thursday, says he spends little time thinking about proving the Kings or anyone else wrong and is driven by only one thing.
“It’s winning,” he said. “That’s all it’s about. I think I realized early in my career I’m probably not going to get 50 goals (a season) or 500 like Ovi. You get a taste of that Cup and you just want to win every year. That’s what it’s all about now. Whether you get 100 points (or) 20 points, it’s all about ending the season with a win.
“As a competitive athlete you just want to go out and do well. It’s not proving people wrong. If you’re looking to do that you have other issues, probably, if you’re in the sport to do that.
“It’s more just about getting the best out of yourself and taking advantage of the opportunities you’re given. Really, it’s being a part of the NHL and doing your best to have success.
“You don’t want to sit back during the summertime and say, ‘What if I did this?’ Or, after your career is over say, ‘What if I did that?’ You try to live in the moment and do the best that you can.”
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