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With Beagle sidelined, should Caps pursue Richards?


With Beagle sidelined, should Caps pursue Richards?

With third-line Jay Beagle awaiting surgery and expected to be sidelined “an extended period of time” with an upper body injury, is it time for the Capitals to consider signing free-agent center and two-time Stanley Cup champion Mike Richards?

Richards, 30, has been in his own personal purgatory since the Los Angeles Kings terminated his contract on June 29, twelve days after he was stopped at the Canadian border, allegedly trying to enter Manitoba while in possession of a controlled substance, reportedly OxyContin pills.

On Oct. 9 the Kings and NHL Players’ Association reached a settlement in which Richards will receive about $10.5 million of the $22 million remaining on his contract. Richards has spent the past few months skating with his former junior team on Kitchener, Ontario, waiting and hoping for an NHL team to sign him.   

"My goal is to get back into the NHL and I'm working out hard to do that," Richards told the Waterloo Region Record back in November.

Capitals veteran right wing Justin Williams, who won a pair of Stanley Cups with Richards while the two were teammates in Los Angeles, said he’s recently talked with Richards.

“We didn’t talk very much about hockey,” Williams said, “but it 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.

“He’s not old and I’m sure he’s still capable of playing,” Williams said. “It all depends on his mental fortitude and where he is.”

Others around the NHL agree.  In his prime, Richards was the proto-typical checking-line center, capable of winning faceoffs, killing penalties and shutting down some of the NHL’s top forwards. But after winning the Stanley Cup with the Kings in 2014, when he recorded 10 points in 26 playoff games, Richards’ on-ice effectiveness dipped dramatically.

He had five goals and 11 assists and was a minus-10 in 53 games for the Kings last season, prompting them to send him to the AHL Manchester Monarchs, where Richards managed 14 points in 16 games.     

“On the ice, we all know Richie’s hockey instincts are off the charts and he’s only 30, so I think he can still play,” said long-time Philadelphia Flyers pro scout Dave Brown, who saw the Flyers select Richards 24th  overall in the 2001 draft. “But I think mentally, everyone is wondering where his head is.”

Those questions came to the forefront on Oct. 9 when, following the settlement with the NHLPA, Kings general manager Dean Lombardi provided the Los Angeles Times with a written summation of what he described as a betrayal by Richards, calling it the most “traumatic episode” of Lombardi’s career.

“I tried everything with Mike -- meeting with him constantly, sending him to concussion specialists, traveling in the off-season to visit with him at his summer home — and everything failed,” Lombardi wrote. “I heard the rumors that Mike might have some off-ice issues, but I refused to believe that they were true despite some obvious signs.

"The reality is that I was ‘played.’ My only regret, though, is that I wish Mike had been able to come to me with his problem — and that was the last message I left for him on his cellphone when I learned of the incident (at the Canadian border) and all the history leading up to the incident.

“I believe that what happened to Mike Richards is a tragedy and I cannot let it go. My short-term goal is to win championships; my long-term goal is to eventually become more involved with groups studying the changing values that are becoming increasingly evident in sport and their root causes.

“I certainly believe that Mike Richards must be held accountable for his actions — but when a player who at one time symbolized everything that was special about the sport can become caught in such a destructive spiral, then I believe the institution of sport must begin to examine its level of culpability."

Richards had a December court hearing postponed until late January and any NHL team interested in signing him (the San Jose Sharks reportedly have shown interest) may wait for the legal process to play out before taking steps toward signing him.

Former Capitals enforcer Craig Berube, who worked as an assistant coach in Philadelphia when Richards was the team’s captain, said he would suspect that if an NHL team signs Richards, he would need to play in the AHL for a stretch of games before joining an NHL roster.

“You can’t just step in after you’ve been working out with a junior team,” Berube said. “He would definitely need some (AHL) games.”

Many believe Richards would settle for the NHL minimum salary of $575,000, which would be prorated for however many games he plays in the regular season. With the Capitals expected to place Beagle on long-term injury (carrying a minimum of 10 missed games or 24 days) his annual $1.75 million salary would become available in cap space during his absence.      

For his part, Richards seems anxious to end his hockey exile and play for a team that will give him a chance to feel good about hockey again.

"I don't think it's about having anything to prove but more that burning desire to continue to have success," he told the Waterloo Region Record. "Winning those Stanley Cups were probably the best times of my life. I think that's what pushes me and keeps me going … to try and do that again.

"Obviously, (the past few months) has been stressful," he said. "Everyone says different things but I know who my family and friends are and that's all that really matters, having their support.

"You can't do anything about it now but push forward and look toward the future and try to learn from your mistakes."


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Did the Capitals solve their depth scoring issues in Friday's loss?

Did the Capitals solve their depth scoring issues in Friday's loss?

Friday’s loss to the Florida Panthers was disappointing in a number of ways for the Capitals, but some good may yet come from it with the emergence of the third line.

A poor performance in the opening frame led to Todd Reirden switching up his lines to start the second. No change had a greater effect than the addition of Jakub Vrana to the third line in place of Andre Burakovsky to play with Lars Eller and Brett Connolly.

The move yielded instant results.

Connolly scored his first goal of the season less than two minutes into the period and added an assist. Vrana also recorded a goal and an assist, while Eller had a three-point night with three assists.

“It was just to make something happen,” Eller said, “Not that [Burakovsky] did something wrong, but just to make something happen and it worked. We kept riding the wave from there on and got two in that period. That seemed to work so that was positive.”

Vrana, Eller and Connolly were three players who had been playing well for the Caps, but were just not producing.

Heading into Friday’s game, Vrana and Eller both had only one point apiece on the season. Connolly had four, but three of those points came earlier in the season while he was skating on the team’s top line.

Friday was his first goal of the season.

“It’s good to get a goal,” Connolly said. “Getting some assists and all that and being a factor on some goals, but it’s nice to see one go in. I’ve had a lot of chances to start the year, thought I’ve been playing well. Lot more shots, lot more chances than I had last year and throughout the last two seasons per game. So I feel I’m ahead of the game right now in terms of that.”

Depth scoring has been a major weakness for the Caps so far in the early season. Washington had gotten only two bottom six goals prior to Friday’s game, and both came in the team’s blowout win over Boston in the opener.

They needed a spark to get offense from the bottom six, and they just may have found it on Friday with that third line combination.

Don’t be surprised to see that Vrana-Eller-Connolly trio stick together in Vancouver for the Caps’ next game against the Canucks.


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Capitals have been their own worst enemy, and they were again on Friday

Capitals have been their own worst enemy, and they were again on Friday

The Capitals managed to earn a point on Friday in a 6-5 shootout loss to the Florida Panthers, but the game felt like a missed opportunity for Washington. After giving up four goals in the first period, seven power plays including two 5-on-3s, and two power play goals, the Caps knew they had no one to blame but themselves for the loss.

“We were still not quite there maybe emotionally,” Lars Eller said.

At least not for the first period. The Caps allowed four goals in the opening 20 minutes to dig themselves into a 4-1 hole. Each goal came from the slot as the Caps had no control over the front of their own net.

“Just tough to start that way, to kind of dig ourselves a big hole,” Brett Connolly said. “Obviously, it’s good to come back and get a point but we don’t need to do that to ourselves. It takes a lot of energy to get back in that game.”

Washington battled back to tie the game at 4, but penalties ultimately derailed their momentum, allowing Florida to retake the lead.

After scoring three straight goals, the Caps took three minor penalties in the final three minutes of the second period.

Alex Ovechkin was called for interference on Aaron Ekblad as he made no attempt to play a loose puck that trickled past the Florida defenseman. He was clearly focused on delivering the hit and nothing else.

Less than a minute later, Eller was caught on the ice a tad early, and Washington was called for too many men.

“I see Backy coming for a change, they had full possession,” Eller said. “I don't see behind my back, I think the guys are telling me he has one skate over so I think it was an unnecessary call, but what am I going to say? It's a tough one.”

With 1:15 of a two-man advantage to work with, Jonathan Huberdeau scored the go-ahead goal late in the period.

Even after a furious comeback, the Caps could not escape the second with the score tied because of the penalties.

Just 43 seconds after Huberdeau’s goal, Washington went right back to 5-on-3. Evgeny Kuznetsov was tossed from a faceoff by the linesman and argued the call, eventually earning himself an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.

“He said something he shouldn't have said to the referee,” Reirden said of the call.

The Caps' penalty problems were exacerbated by the continued problems of the penalty kill.

Heading into Friday's game, Washington was only killing off 72.2 percent of the power plays they faced. They allowed another two power play goals Friday as they continued to struggle when facing the extra man.

“We have room for improvement for sure,” Reirden said of his penalty kill. “It’s a new system, new with the way we’re killing, its new personnel. We’re learning. We’re missing a key guy in Tom on that as well. It’s not easy, either, when you’re 5-on-3 when they’ve got talented players that can convert in that spot. It’s definitely a work in progress and I didn't expect it to go smoothly to start with. That’s one of the areas that we knew was gonna be new to our team this year and it’s gonna continue to take some work. It’s something that definitely is a work in progress.”

Mistakes put the Caps down 4-1, they put them down 5-4, they cost them a valuable point against a previously winless Panthers team before a four-game road trip through Canada, and they are ultimately why the defending Stanley Cup champions are only 3-2-2 to start the season.

And they know it.

“We’re still trying to find our game,” Connolly said. “Would we have liked to have picked up where we left off? Yes. But it’s not easy. We played a lot of hockey last year and a short summer and you come in here and there’s a lot of distractions, a lot of that kind of stuff. We’ve done some good things and we’ve done some not so good things.

"I think if you look at last season we weren't very good either at the start. We weren't at our best. Just take the positives and know that we can overcome that. It hasn’t been disastrous. We’re still getting points, we’re still above .500 right now with a tough couple back-to-backs to start the year. So not the worst start, but obviously we have another level.”