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Richards on Lombardi: 'I didn't make it easy on him'


Richards on Lombardi: 'I didn't make it easy on him'

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.”

RELATED: Caps' comeback falls just short as Stars hold on for 4-3 win

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.”

MORE CAPITALS: It's OK to exhale, Kuznetsov passes concussion tests

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The Caps are a bad faceoff team, here’s what they’re doing about it

USA Today Sports

The Caps are a bad faceoff team, here’s what they’re doing about it

Tuesday’s practice was a lot like every other for the Caps until the end. After working on the power play, the team gathered at one end of the ice and began working on faceoffs. It was not just the centers, but wingers and defensemen alike got into the action with every win celebrated by loud cheers from teammates.

It should could as no surprise to see faceoffs as a point of emphasis for Washington considering just how much the team has struggled with them in the early season. The Caps rank 30th in the league in faceoff win percentage at only 43.8-percent.

“Yeah, there's little details that can help our game,” Lars Eller told reporters after practice. “The more you have the puck, easier the game is gonna be for you. We have a little more time in between games than usual during the season here, so we have the time to work on something like that, which can be little things that makes the difference.”

The team as a whole watched video on faceoffs prior to practice and then worked as a five-man unit during the drill. The main point of emphasis head coach Todd Reirden wanted to drill into his players was that faceoffs are not simply the responsibility of the centers alone.

“The days of it just being center vs. center and a clean draw being won back are a rarity now so it's important to have all five guys helping, something we watched video on earlier today,” Reirden said.

“You ask any centerman if they have a good group of wingers that can help them out on draws, that makes a huge difference,” Nic Dowd said. “I've been lucky, I have [Devante Smith-Pelly] on my right and I'm a righty so I win all my draws my backhand side so a lot of pucks go his way and he wins a lot of draws for me. That's huge. You have a guy that's sitting over there that's sleeping, you could go easily from five wins to five losses and then that's your night. It makes a big difference.”

Faceoffs were always going to be more of a struggle for the Caps this season with the departure of Jay Beagle who was, by far, the team’s best faceoff man for several years. Whenever the team needed a big draw, Beagle was the player relied upon to win it. With him gone, it is no surprise to see the team struggle.

But the Caps don’t like the idea of keeping possession off a draw just 43.8-percent of the time.

“It's essentially like the ref is creating a 50-50 puck and you snap it back, you get possession, now you're forechecking and it makes a huge difference,” Dowd said. “You play against those top lines, they want to be in the O-zone. Well, if you lose the draw, now you're playing D-zone, you win the draw now you're playing O-zone. So effectively, you've shut down their shift.”

There is a school of thought suggesting that perhaps the importance of winning faceoffs is overrated and a team’s faceoff win percentage is not overly important. Eller himself admitted as much to reporters.

What no one can argue, however, is that while some faceoffs may not matter all that much, there are some that are hugely important in a game. The Caps recognize that. For them, being a strong faceoff team is not necessarily about improving the team’s win percentage, but more about being able to win those critical draws.

“It's something that for the most part the players understand and a neutral zone faceoff with 14 minutes to go in the first period is not nearly as important as one that's 5-on-6 at the end of the game,” Reirden said. “We all know that. It's important to put the right people on those situations and give them the best chance to have success.”

“A center ice draw, I could see where guys could make the argument, well you lose it you still will play hockey and stuff could still happen,” Dowd said. “But I think the game is such a possession game now that any opportunity you can win a 50-50 puck whether that's a faceoff or a board battle, it makes a huge difference.”


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The case for 'Making Hockey Fun Again,' and the Capitals’ place in it

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The case for 'Making Hockey Fun Again,' and the Capitals’ place in it

Like it or not, the NHL is becoming younger, louder, and more personable. And as its young stars begin to gain leadership positions, the demand from a younger subset of fans grows larger: Make hockey fun again. Let players have personality on the ice and off, be it through social media engagement, game-day fashion, or creative goal celebrations.

Some say that hockey was always fun. True, to an extent. 

Minute per game minute, you arguably can’t find a faster, more action-packed major sport. But among the North American leagues, and internationally, the NBA still dominates on Twitter activity and in its social media. 

One of the biggest factors that helped basketball succeed in the social age wasn’t the NHL’s commonly preached conformity.

The NBA found huge success in marketing its star players as larger-than-life, letting them have public personas that tied into larger, richer narratives spanning careers, teams, and decades.

Superstar Auston Matthews, the up-and-coming 21-year-old face of American hockey, has taken note, citing NBA star Russell Westbrook’s individuality as a source of inspiration in a recent GQ feature

He’s well met by former USA National Team Development Program teammates Jack Eichel, who was recently named captain of the Buffalo Sabres; Dylan Larkin, Detroit’s hometown darling who’s stepping up as an assistant captain for the Red Wings; and Matthew Tkachuk, who’s also wearing an A in Calgary.

It’s not only the born and bred American youngsters who are ready to stand out. The team responsible for the resurgence of the debate about how much fun is too much is none other than the Washington Capitals, whose summer celebrations led to the ban of the legendary Cup Stand.

Though the publicity of their championship celebrations was revolutionary, the Capitals hold more promise in amount of fun per sixty. After a title win, their petty grudges are only transforming into a bold sense of self-confidence.

Alex Ovechkin is already a superstar on a mission to grab the attention of all the boys and girls and babes in the hockey world. Evgeny Kuznetsov’s interviews and celebrations reveal a player growing into the spotlight, ready to embrace a downright devious kind of skill against his opponents. Braden Holtby is already a league-recognized style icon whose meticulously chosen plaid suits and well-groomed beard have woven into the hype of game-day coverage. And Nicklas Backstrom is finally smiling on-camera.

(This isn’t even mentioning highly polarizing figure Tom Wilson, whose aggressive approach on the ice has earned him the marking of a player everyone hates unless he’s on their team.)

If the NHL wants to appeal to new viewers, it can gain ground by marketing its stars outside of a bland, monotone mold for success. 

With high-scoring, chaotically delightful games that happen almost every night all across the continent, an audience needs something to anchor them.

Individuality isn’t a bad place to start.