Team success and individual instability for Mike Richards

(Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NHL)

Take a look at Mike Richards’ résumé:

Memorial Cup, Kitchener Rangers, 2003
World Junior Championship gold, Team Canada, 2005
Calder Cup, Philadelphia Phantoms, 2005
Winter Olympics gold, Team Canada, 2010
Prince of Wales Trophy, Philadelphia Flyers, 2010
Clarence Campbell Bowl, Los Angeles Kings, 2012
Stanley Cup, Los Angeles Kings, 2012

There’s more:

Richards is the only NHLer to play in two series comebacks in which his team won a series after being behind three games to none. He did it with the Philadelphia Flyers against the Boston Bruins in 2010, and again with the Kings over the San Jose Sharks in the first round this year.

He’s also the only player to win the Memorial Cup, Calder Cup and Stanley Cup as a player.

Oh yeah, and he holds the NHL record for most shorthanded 5-on-3 goals (three), which is kinda cool.

But the buyout scuttlebutt buzzing around Richards this post-season suggests Sunday could be his final game in a Kings uniform after Los Angeles lost to the Chicago Blackhawks 4-3 in Game 6 Friday night to even the series 3-3 and set up a Game 7 back in Illinois.

That’s right, one of the most money players in hockey history, who has yet to turn 30 years old, might become a casualty of the league’s money game. That’s what the NHL has come to in the salary cap system. Arguably, no active player has had more team success throughout his career than Richards, and yet his current team may end up not wanting him, even if it wins with him, yet again.

Richards is halfway through a 12-year, $69-million contract he signed with Philadelphia in 2008. He played the first three seasons of his deal in Philly before the Flyers traded him in 2011 to Los Angeles, where he’s played the past three with the Kings. He has $29 million remaining on his contract, which carries a cap hit of $5.8 million. It would cost the Kings $19.3 million over 12 years to buy him out.

His production has slipped this season, but that’s not the real reason why Richards might be bought out by the Kings. Several others, all out of his control, may dictate his departure out of L.A.

The salary cap ceiling could go up to only $69 million or $70 million for 2014-15 due to the dip in the Canadian Dollar, which would shrink the Kings’ cap space from its current $13.1 million, according to capgeek.com. Los Angeles is sitting somewhat pretty with only Marian Gaborik, Dwight King, Willie Mitchell and Matt Greene as free agents to re-sign. GM Dean Lombardi, however, has always left himself some leeway to work with throughout the season, so that means he’ll use only $10 million tops to fill those four roster spots. Gaborik ($7.5M) King ($750K), Mitchell ($3.5M) and Greene ($3M) currently account for almost $15 million in cap space. Of the four, only King will get a raise, while the other three will have to take pay cuts, if they stay, but there’s no way all four come back for $10 million combined.

Then there’s next season, when Los Angeles will have 10 free agents – six restricted (Kyle Clifford, Tanner Pearson, Tyler Toffoli, Jordan Nolan, Jake Muzzin, Martin Jones) and four unrestricted (Justin Williams, Jarret Stoll, Robyn Regehr, Alec Martinez) – to re-sign or replace. Lombardi has managed the salary cap better than any GM in the NHL, so it’s a safe bet to assume that whatever he does this off-season he’ll do with next summer in mind.

All this means he needs cap space. And this is where Richards comes in. Clearing his nearly $6 million cap hit by buying him out would give Lombardi the flexibility he wants to work with. To trade Richards, however, Lombardi wouldn’t receive much in return, and he would likely have to stomach some salary, just like the Vancouver Canucks did when they dealt Roberto Luongo, who has a similarly cumbersome contract.

Statistically, Richards isn’t the player he used to be and is no longer worth the cap space he takes up. He had 11 goals and 41 points in 82 games this season – his lowest average output since he was a rookie in 2005-06. The past two seasons he’s averaged fewer than 17 minutes per game, and the 15:21 he’s averaged in the playoffs is his lowest in eight career post-seasons. (He did have a 53.9 faceoff percentage – tied for 20th in the league.) Team Canada didn’t bring him back for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, where it won gold again, and it’s looking likely that the Kings won’t either, even if they win Sunday night in Chicago and go on to win another Stanley Cup with him.

Successfully, however, Richards just wins wherever he goes. And that’s likely to continue, as it has throughout his amateur and professional career, should Sunday end up being his last game as a Los Angeles King.

Ronnie Shuker is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. Follow him on Twitter at @THNRonnieShuker.

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