In the midst of the LA Kings recent demotion of struggling, high-priced center Mike Richards to the AHL, it’s been suggested he needs a trade in order to regain his once-stellar two-way game.
Richards has struggled over the past two seasons. While his offensive production dipped after he was dealt to the Kings in 2011 by the Philadelphia Flyers, his overall performance remained solid. Since the start of last season, however, his game has deteriorated.
Theories have been bandied about over why Richards – a winner at every level, well-liked by his teammates and respected around the league for his leadership and two-way style – could decline in the late-twenties. There’s also suggestions for how he can regain his form. Topping that list is the belief “a change of scenery will do him good.”
It’s a widely-held opinion among NHL followers that a struggling star can get his groove back simply by changing teams via trade or free agency. When a player is of the stature of Richards, who was once among the NHL’s top two-way forwards, that assumption becomes almost gospel. He simply cannot be declining at such a young age, so the problem must be where he’s playing. Maybe the coach doesn’t like him. Maybe he’s just the wrong fit for their system. Maybe he just needs better linemates. Maybe there’s personal baggage which can only be addressed if he lived and played elsewhere.
The danger, however, is that judgment becomes clouded because of the player’s reputation. While there are instances in NHL history where that scenario has panned out for some players, it hasn’t for others.
In nearly every instance when Richards is mentioned in trade chatter, his championship experience, leadership and his two-way ability are often mentioned in justifying why he’s still an attractive trade option. Despite the obvious decline in his skills and his expensive contract, some teams actually considered acquiring him.
It’s one thing to take a chance on a players who is lower-salaried or on shorter term. The risk isn’t dire to your salary cap or your long-term plans if the gamble fails to pay off.
Richards, however, is a different matter. He have five years remaining on his contract at an annual cap hit of $5.75 million. Buying him out this year would cost over $1.46 million annually against your salary cap for the next ten years.
If he’s traded and continues to struggle, the team which acquires him will be saddled with a significant salary cap burden. The possibility of a lower-than-projected cap for next season makes it more costly.
The stark reality for Mike Richards could be, as The Score’s Justin Bourne cited last April, that the wear-and-tear of his style of play has caught up with him. As Richards approaches 30 in February, he could very well be past his prime.
It’s something Richards fans don’t want to believe. The punditry appears to gloss over it when envisioning trade scenarios. It’s quite possible there are some general managers who want to believe Richards still has it. Heck, I’m sure even Richards believes he’s still a capable star.
The steep decline in his numbers, starting in 2013-14 and continuing into this season, suggest otherwise. And that’s not going to be fixed with a trade.
At this point, a comparison to former NHL star Dany Heatley seems appropriate. An offensive star during the previous decade, including consecutive 50-goal, 100-point performances in 2005-06 and 2006-07 with the Ottawa Senators, Heatley’s numbers began a serious decline in the 2010-11 season, which a trade to the Minnesota Wild and signing with the Anaheim Ducks did nothing to halt.
It took years for a consensus to emerge that Heatley’s decline wasn’t due to laziness, poor conditioning, injury, the wrong coach/system/linemates and other excuses, but simply because he physically declined sooner than expected.
It’s hard to believe a healthy NHL player can be in decline before the age of 30, in a period when they’re still considered in their playing prime. But for whatever reason, it does happen. And that seems to be the case with Richards.
Those who advocate a trade of Richards believe that, despite the financial risks and the likelihood he won’t improve, he would still be a worthwhile addition for his experience and leadership. That’s just clutching at straws. Who’s going to listen to a potentially washed-up center pulling fourth-line minutes whose salary eats up precious cap space which could’ve been put to better use? Any NHL general manager who honestly believes that’s a winning formula is not only fooling himself, he’s potentially damaging his team’s ability to maintain a winning team.
This isn’t engaging in character assassination. By all accounts, Richards is a well-liked and respected NHL player. His winning pedigree is undeniable. During his prime he was definitely among the NHL’s best players.
But he’s not in his prime anymore. He’s become such an expensive cap headache for the Kings they were trying to trade him before demoting him to the minors. I daresay they’ll try to trade him again. If Kings GM Dean Lombardi and coach Darryl Sutter truly believed Richards was worth retaining, he wouldn’t be toiling in the minors today. But he’s not worth retaining now, and while Lombardi and Sutter won’t come right out and say it, I’ll hazard a guess and say they know in their hearts he’s past it.
If Richards was an unrestricted free agent this summer or had only a year left on his contract, gambling that a trade might help him regain his form might be worth it. With five years and over $29 million left on his contract, the risks far outweigh the benefits.