An NHL player, especially a high-caliber one, should not be in the twilight of his career at the age of 30. That said, one has to wonder what in the world has happened to Mike Richards.
Richards was a proven winner before ever playing in an NHL game, capturing the Memorial Cup with the Kitchener Rangers in 2003 — the year he was selected 24th overall by the Philadelphia Flyers. The native of Ontario went on to serve as captain of Team Canada and lead them to the gold medal at the 2005 World Junior Championships before helping the American Hockey League’s Philadelphia Phantoms win the Calder Cup championship later in the year.
His 2005-06 rookie season with the Flyers was a solid one, as he finished with 11 goals and 34 points in 79 games. Richards scored in his NHL debut against the New York Rangers and became the first Flyers rookie since Mikael Renberg in 1994 to register a hat trick, which included a pair of shorthanded goals, against the New York Islanders.
After a sophomore campaign that was limited to 59 games due to stomach surgery, Richards led the Flyers with 75 points in 2007-08. During that season, he appeared in the All-Star Game as a member of the Eastern Conference team a month after signing an incredible 12-year contract extension worth $69 million.
Richards then helped the Flyers reach the conference finals, where they were defeated by the Pittsburgh Penguins, and was named the 17th captain in franchise history prior to the 2008-09 campaign. His ability to tally while shorthanded earned him several records that season, as he scored his NHL-record third 3-on-5 goal on February 15 and became the first player in club history — and first in the league since Joe Sakic in 1998 — to record a shorthanded goal in three straight games six days later.
He nearly won the Selke Trophy after the season, finishing only three points behind Pavel Datsyuk of the Detroit Red Wings. But with all the success Richards enjoyed in 2008-09, the following campaign proved to be a tumultuous one for him.
The four-year veteran was accused of being one of several members of the team that tended to party excessively, leading to a feud with the local media. The Flyers’ performance was considered sub-par, as they needed to defeat the Rangers in a shootout in the regular-season finale to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The Flyers got past the New Jersey Devils in five games in the first round, but fell into an 0-3 hole against the Boston Bruins in the conference semifinals before rallying to become just the third team in NHL history to overcome such a deficit and win the series. Richards and his squad then made quick work of Montreal, eliminating the Canadiens in five games, before falling in six to the Chicago Blackhawks in the Cup Final.
After failing to make it past the second round the following postseason, the Flyers sent shockwaves through the hockey world by making a pair of blockbuster trades on June 23, 2011. Jeff Carter, who was drafted 13 spots before Richards in 2003 and inked to an 11-year contract extension in 2010, was dealt to the Columbus Blue Jackets while the captain was shipped to the Los Angeles Kings.
“I was very shocked,” Richards told reporters after the trade. “At first, I was shocked, and then excited. I’m excited to move out to LA and be a part of a team that has a ton of great players. I’m just looking forward to helping them out.”
And help out he did, as the Kings steamrolled through the Western Conference in the postseason, losing only two games over the first three rounds, before defeating New Jersey in six for the first championship in franchise history. Hoping to repeat, Los Angeles got past the St. Louis Blues and San Jose Sharks in a pair of grueling series that resulted in several injury casualties but succumbed to Chicago in the conference final.
Those playoffs marked the last time we’ve seen a productive Richards, as he scored only 11 goals in 2013-14, his lowest total since he netted 11 during his rookie season. His previous comeback experience with the Flyers proved crucial as the Kings became the fourth team to win a postseason series after losing the first three games when they ousted San Jose in the first round, making Richards the only player in NHL history to play for two teams that accomplished the feat.
Los Angeles went on to win its second Stanley Cup in three years, but Richards contributed only three goals and seven assists during the run. And his 2014-15 season was an absolute horror, with the veteran collecting five goals and 16 points in 53 games while also earning a trip to the minors for the first time since joining the NHL.
No one has been able to explain how a player of Richards’ skill could fall so far in the blink of an eye. The drop has left his status with Los Angeles — and possibly in the NHL — in question, even though he has five years and $22 million remaining on his monstrous contract.
Kings general manager Dean Lombardi has several options from which to choose but stated earlier this week that a decision has not been made.
“There (have) been … a number of scenarios – a trade, a subsidy, a buyout, and all those would probably be reflected on how the other pieces (of the roster) fit,” Lombardi said during a conference call. “So there’s a number of ways to deal with that cap hit.”
Never seeing Richards in an NHL game again would be a huge shame, considering his age and how much talent he should still possess. But should his career be over, one has to wonder if the early partying accusations and the notorious Los Angeles lifestyle played a role.