NEW YORK – When Barry Trotz speaks about Mike Richards, and what he theoretically could bring to the first-place Washington Capitals, the memories come rushing back.
“Fiercely competitive. A winner. Makes a difference. He’s one of those guys who watches how a game is going, and determines how he can make a positive impact,” said Trotz.
The Mike Richards who used to hound Sidney Crosby all over the ice. The Mike Richards who gave Alex Ovechkin his first career fight. The Mike Richards who was a factor in two Stanley Cup championships with the Los Angeles Kings. The big goals. The Selke-level defense.
The question for the Capitals, who signed Richards to a one-year deal worth $1 million, and Richards, who hasn’t played since April amid off-ice infamy, is whether he still can be that player.
“He’s all those things,” said Trotz. “He appreciates where he was. He appreciates what he’s gotten out of. And he appreciates where he as a chance to go. I think when you have that good clarity, you have a good sense of worth, which I think he does, he has a great chance to succeed.”
Richards has been watching the Capitals for the last few weeks on television, and will skate with them on Friday. He’s currently cast on the team’s fourth line, and if his conditioning isn’t up to par, he could see a game or two in the American Hockey League. But Trotz made it clear that with good play will come more ice time, potentially as the team's third-line center.
“I think the biggest thing will just be adjusting to the speed. It’ll be a little bit different than just jumping in in October; obviously, January is a lot quicker than it is at the beginning of the season. Just adjusting to the speed and getting ready in practice, and we’ll go from there and see how it goes,” he said.
Richards walks into a locker room with old foes from his Flyers days like Ovechkin, and an old friend in Justin Williams, who played with Richards on the Kings until the bitter split between Richards and the team.
The Kings terminated his contract, which ran through 2020, on June 29, 2015, citing a “material breach.” The breach, they claimed, occurred when Richards was involved in an incident at the Canadian border which led to a formal charge of “possession of Controlled Substance while entering Canada.” TSN reported that the RCMP found “some pills in a single bottle” during a random search of Richards’ car; TMZ reported the pills were oxycodone.
In October, the Kings and Richards settled their contract dispute, after the NHLPA filed a grievance on his behalf. After the settlement, Kings GM Dean Lombardi gave an infamous interview to the Los Angeles Times in which he claimed Richards had “played” him regarding his off-ice issues, and that “the only thing I can think of that would be worse would be suspecting your wife of cheating on you for five years and then finding out in fact it was true.”
Has Richards spoken to Lombardi about those comments?
“I haven’t spoken to Dean in a really, really long time,” he said.
Does he have any reaction to the comments?
“No, I do not. I'll take the high road.”
Once the Kings and Richards split, MacLellan’s ears perked up.
He’s been a player personnel guy in the NHL for the entirety of Richards’ career, and felt the center could be a vital piece in a Capitals’ championship puzzle.
“It’s the player that he was,” said MacLellan. “He’s got over 120 games playoff experience. He’s been on a lot of championship teams from junior to American League to NHL to Olympics. I think that doesn’t happen by accident. He just didn’t fall into all of those. There’s a quality person, teammate there that we were interested in and we think we can get a lot of that back out of him.”
So the discussions began: Internally with the Capitals management near the end of the summer; with Williams, to learn about more about Richards in the locker room and his situation with the Kings; with Richards’ agents, to gauge Richards' interest and regarding his legal proceedings; and then, a few weeks ago, with Richards in Toronto, between the player and the Capitals' the coach and the general manager.
“We had a good discussion with him for an hour, hour and a half and just got a sense of where he was at personally. Where he was at with his playing career. What he wanted to accomplish. The emotional stuff. Felt a good comfort level from there,” said MacLellan.
“It was a pretty laid back conversation. What my expectations were. What their expectations were,” said Richards. “They obviously had to jump through some hoops, and I appreciated that.”
That they did. The Capitals had their lawyers talk to his lawyer, and then have immigration lawyers involved to make sure that Richards could play in Canada despite the border incident.
Which is a lot of work for a fourth-liner making $1 million – pro-rated.
MacLellan said Richards has a hearing on Jan. 28, that’s a status hearing. He’s going to plead ‘not guilty’ to the charges. The general manager knows this is a situation that could drag on, “but we think we’ll have a favorable outcome for him in his case.”
The last hoop for Richards before joining the Capitals? A meeting with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly in New York.
What did they say, as far as what not to do?
“Not to do? Pretty self-explanatory. But that was just a private convo that we had. That’s pretty much all I can say about that,” he said.
This isn’t the first player Barry Trotz has coached who had his share of off-ice problems. Back with the Nashville Predators, there was Jordin Tootoo and there was Brian McGrattan and others.
“I can be honest with the player. I’ve dealt with it in my personal life, and also with players that I coached,” said Trotz. “It’s just being honest, and everyone in the group knowing where everybody is. Mike’s in a good spot, and our players are in a good spot.”
The hope for the Capitals is that Richards hitting rock bottom puts him on a better path; that the support system in place with the team keeps him there; and that the half-season break he’s had helps rejuvenate Richards, as does this new challenge.
“Absolutely. Mentally, obviously, physically when the body heals up and you feel good, you can perform at the level that you’re capable of,” said Trotz. “A lot of good things out of a tough situation for Mike. I don’t even know all the situations myself. He’s the only one that can explain that.”
Richards hasn’t explained those situations, and probably won’t unless legally compelled to do so. He doesn’t dwell on his legal issues. He doesn’t speak candidly about whatever happened off the ice in Los Angeles, or how it’s altered his life.
Is he a different person now?
“I’m not sure; 2015 wasn’t great, so hopefully 2016 will be,” he said.
“Watching hockey at home and being away from it, I think you just take it for granted of playing and being in the NHL. It’s something that you play 10 years and you almost take it for granted, going to the rink every day. But when you don’t have that opportunity, it weighs on you,” Richards said.
“It’s a privilege to play in the NHL and not everyone gets to do it. It’s a privilege to play hockey at the highest level. It’s not fun being 30 years old, sitting on the couch and not having much to do.”
What is fun? Winning the Stanley Cup.
Which is the ultimate goal for Trotz, MacLellan and especially Richards.
“They’ve got a good team, just watching them over the past couple weeks ... the speed. It reminds me a lot of the team in L.A. we had the last couple of years. Big, strong, physical and can really dominate you really any way. If you want to play a hard game, they can do that. If you want to play a fast game, they can do that,” he said.
“I’m lucky enough to go through it twice and that’s what you want to do. You just want to keep doing it because it’s so much fun. It’s a lot of work, but the reward is pretty awesome.”
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