From the sights and sounds of the Capitals’ optional practice on Friday, center Mike Richards is close to making his long-awaited and much-debated debut with the Caps.
Richards skated for the eighth straight day on Friday at Kettler and said he’s starting to feel like an NHL player again.
“You don’t want to be that guy messing up the drills or chucking pucks at people’s feet,” said Richards, who has not played an NHL game since April 9 for the Los Angeles Kings. “My legs are feeling better, my hands are feeling better. It’s just the progression of a shortened training camp maybe, but I feel good.”
Asked if he’s ready to play this weekend, when the Caps visit the Sabres on Saturday and return home to face the Rangers on Sunday, Richards shrugged his shoulders and smiled.
“I just do what I’m told,” he said. “If he needs me to play I’ll play.”
“He” would be Capitals coach Barry Trotz, and after allowing Richards to go through a game-day routine on Thursday, which included a pregame skate, Trotz seems willing to put the 30-year-old center into action in Buffalo.
“He’s getting used to how we do things,” Trotz said. “He’ got to feel real comfortable so when we throw him on the ice he’s just thinking about playing hockey.
Trotz said he’s not adverse to Richards playing in back-to-back games this weekend, especially if he keeps his ice time to a minimum Saturday night against the Sabres.
“I may have to say, ‘Go into one and see where it’s at,’” Trotz said. “He’s going to start on the fourth line, which is natural, and we’ll try to increase his minutes. But if his minutes aren’t too high to start, I wouldn’t be too hesitant (to play Richards on Sunday). I want him to succeed and I know he’s going to be a good fit for us.”
Trotz said he’s considered letting Richards play in the Capitals’ six games leading up to the NHL All-Star break, then sending him to the AHL Hershey Bears for back-to-back games on Saturday, Jan. 29 in Syracuse and Sunday, Jan. 30 at home, also against Syracuse. Richards also has a hearing scheduled for Jan. 28 in Manitoba for allegedly taking a controlled substance across the Canadian border last summer. It is unclear if that hearing will be postponed.
“He’s made great strides,” Trotz said. “The first few days you get a little humbled. You think you’re in pretty great shape and you find out you’ve got some work to do. If you’re passing with your brother and a couple of your buddies (in Kenora, Ontario) they’re not going up the ice like Kuzy and Burakovsky and Ovi. He’s caught up to that.”
After six seasons in Philadelphia and four more in Los Angeles, Richards says he’s impressed with the pace he’s seen in his short stay with the Capitals.
“The biggest thing is just the work ethic every day, it really is amazing,” Richards said. “The high tempo of the practices; everybody’s in the gym working out together; the fun they have doing it. It’s pretty impressive to be honest to come to a team doing so well. Sometimes you get complacent, especially around the halfway point of the season, but it seems like they’re not satisfied, they’re pushing for more.”
While others may question why the Capitals would add Richards to a team already 16 points ahead of the rest of the Metropolitan Division, Trotz is not. He knows Richards’ hockey history, which includes a Memorial Cup in 2003 with the OHL Kitchener Rangers, a World Junior Championships gold medal in 2005 with Team Canada, a Calder Cup in 2005 with the Philadelphia Phantoms, an Olympic gold medal in 2010 with Team Canada and two Stanley Cups with the 2012 and 2014 Kings.
“In your business there are people you look at and you go, ‘That is an outstanding journalist,’ Trotz said. “I’m saying he’s an outstanding hockey player. They love to be playing the game, they compete at a very intense level. All those things I like about Mike and I think he’s going to be a real fit for us.”
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