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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