Mike Richards was supposed to be the Los Angeles Kings' Derek Jeter and represent the pivotal piece to winning championships. He won two Stanley Cups, yet was shown the door last summer.
Richards hit two highs and many more lows in four seasons with the Kings, who terminated his contract last summer. He had been sent to the minor leagues after his play and production dropped off and was arrested at the Canadian border in June for possession of a controlled substance.
The 31-year-old eventually settled a grievance with Los Angeles but was out of the NHL until the Washington Capitals signed him in January. Richards faces the Kings on Tuesday for the first time since his departure and insists there are no hard feelings toward the organization or Los Angeles general manager Dean Lombardi.
"He had to do things that he probably did want to do at the end of the day, but I didn't make it easy on him, either, to keep me around," Richards said. "I want to say fault on both parts, but it's probably more so on me, and he had to do what he had to do [for] what he thought benefited the L.A. Kings."
Lombardi could have bought out Richards with no salary-cap ramifications in the summer of 2014 after the Kings' second Cup but let the two-way forward and former Philadelphia Flyers captain convince him to keep him around. The GM adored Richards and still praises him for setting the tempo in the first playoff series in 2012 against Vancouver, the first sign Los Angeles was title-bound.
Acquired from Philadelphia at the 2011 draft, Richards had 15 points in the 20 games during 2012 Cup run and was his usual penalty-killing, defensive-minded self for the first two seasons before he became a fourth-liner and was a bit part of the 2014 championship. The Kings waived him and sent him to the American Hockey League for a stint a year ago with the hope Richards would get his game together, but that didn't happen and his 16 points were a career low.
Richards' off-ice problems publicly came to light when he was arrested for possession of a controlled substance at a North Dakota-Manitoba border crossing June 17. The Kings terminated his contract June 29 "for a material breach of the requirements of his standard player contract," and in October they settled on paying him a portion of the $22 million US left on the deal.
Looking back on his time with the Kings, Richards remembers the Stanley Cups fondly and doesn't want to harp on the bad times.
"I don't hold grudges," the Kenora, Ont. native said after a recent Capitals practice. "I'm happy to be here now and I'm a true believer that everything happens for a reason. We'll see how this plays out."
Richards has yet to register a point in 11 games with Washington, where he's able to play with former Kings teammate and 2014 playoff MVP Justin Williams. After Richards signed a pro-rated $1 million deal for the rest of the season, Williams said the Capitals are "not going to put a ceiling on what he can do because we've seen what he can do."
Coach Barry Trotz and general manager Brian MacLellan didn't expect Richards to be an offensive juggernaut, believing instead he was a good fit as a gritty complementary piece. Trotz said he was honest about what he wanted from Richards and didn't come in with preconceived notions.
"I think he was a player that, it's probably no different than [Alex Ovechkin], a lot of people make assumptions, a lot of people have perceptions and it's not necessarily reality," Trotz said. "It's the outside world. Unless you're in that locker room or you're playing every night and competing with or against Mike Richards, that's the only way you find out about the person. He's been as advertised coming in for us."
The day the Capitals signed Richards, Lombardi said: "Now that everything's out in the open and the team can work with him without things being hidden, I think he's got a great shot."
Richards said signing with the Capitals was all about winning — not proving the Kings wrong.
"It's not proving people wrong," Richards said. "If you're looking to do that, then you got other issues probably if you're in this sport to do that. It's more just about getting the best out of you, taking advantage of the opportunities you're given and really just being a part of the NHL and doing your best to have success."