LOS ANGELES, Calif. - After a second straight early post-season exit, the Los Angeles Kings set out to pump up the offence beyond leading scorer Anze Kopitar. They took a big first step by nabbing high-scoring centre Mike Richards from the Philadelphia Flyers.
Richards, three years into a 12-year contract, became the second star to be shipped out of Philadelphia on Thursday when the Flyers busted up their core with a pair of blockbuster deals on the eve of the NHL draft. Richards was sent to the Kings for forwards Wayne Simmonds, Brayden Schenn and a second-round draft pick.
Philadelphia moved quickly after clearing much-needed cap space, and agreed with goalie Ilya Bryzgalov on a long-term deal. The Flyers were swept by Boston in the second round of the playoffs, one year after losing to Chicago in the 2010 Stanley Cup finals, and are still seeking their first title since back-to-back championships in 1974 and 1975.
Richards didn't get many answers about why he was traded when he had a brief and emotional call with Flyers general manage Paul Holmgren. Other than injuries and potential team fatigue, he couldn't explain what happened to the club he captained one year after getting so close to winning the Cup.
"I wish I could tell you," he said. "When you underachieve as a team there is a lot of fingers getting pointed. I didn't have a problem with them pointing at me, I was more unhappy with the way it ended and being out of the playoffs."
The Kings (46-30-6) reached the post-season for the second straight year, after netting 98 points in the tough Pacific Division, but fell in six games to the division rival San Jose Sharks in the first round. Los Angeles is pleased with the progress, following six straight non-playoff seasons. Now it is looking to take the next step.
Los Angeles finished fourth in the Pacific, but only seven points behind the division-winning Sharks.
"I was fortunate enough to go to L.A. where I've heard nothing but tremendous things about the city and how nice it is out there and how great the organization treats you," Richards said. "When I signed that extension I wanted to stay in Philadelphia for the rest of my career. That's what I envisioned, up until probably about 2:00 or 3:00 this afternoon when I got the call.
"You don't understand it's a business until you're traded. But it is. It's the worst part about it."
The Kings' 219 goals last season tied Nashville for the fewest among Western Conference post-season teams and were only three more than the Montreal Canadiens, who were last among playoff clubs.
"We felt at this stage of the franchise it was time to make a significant move for an impact player," Kings general manager Dean Lombardi said in a statement. "Mike Richards is not only one of the top players in the league, he's also universally recognized as one of the finer leaders in the game and one of its elite competitors.
"Additionally, given that he's only 26 years old and he's on a long-term contract, he fits our plan now and for the long-term future."
Richards, the 24th pick in the 2003 draft, had 23 goals and 43 assists last season when he played 81 of 82 games with the Flyers and spent his third year as team captain. His 66 points tied for the third on the team with Jeff Carter, the club's top goal-scorer who was dealt to the Columbus Blue Jackets in Philadelphia's first roster-rocking trade of the day.
"It's disappointing. Really over the last 10 years, he's been my best friend," Richards said. "We've come up together, had success together, and really envisioned us playing our entire careers together. It's one of the reasons why we signed the long extensions. We wanted to be in Philadelphia. We both love it there.
"That's really the hardest part about this day."
Richards, a Kenora, Ont., native, has played at least 73 games in all but one of his six NHL seasons with the Flyers. Before dipping to 23 goals last season, he had notched 31, 30, and 28 goals in the previous three years. Richards signed a 12-year, US$69 million extension during the 2007-08 season.
He got a call from his agent during the afternoon and was told there was a 90 per cent chance he would be traded Thursday. Richards then surfed the Internet and found out about the deal just moments before he received another call that confirmed the news.
"I actually never heard one rumour," Richards said. "Not one person has ever said anything to me about being traded until about 1:30 or 2:00 today."
Now he will join a core with the Kings that is led by Kopitar, who had a club-best 73 points — including 25 goals, just three behind club leader Dustin Brown, who is the team captain.
This group can expect to play together for quite some time.
Kopitar signed a seven-year contract extension in October 2008, and Brown agreed to a six-year extension a year earlier. Defenceman Matt Greene is in the midst of a five-year deal, forward Justin Williams inked a four-year extension in February, fellow forward Jarret Stoll is playing under a four-year extension, and defenceman Rob Scuderi left the Pittsburgh Penguins to join the Kings in 2009 when he signed a four-year deal.
"I'm not sure how I am going to fit in, but I like the makeup of the team," Richards said. "They have a lot of skill: two great goaltenders up to the defence who is skilled and play the game hard. Then you have a lot of depth at the forward positions, too."
Los Angeles dipped into its youth to get this trade done, sending the 22-year-old Simmonds and the 19-year-old Schenn to Philadelphia.
Simmonds had 14 goals and 16 assists in 80 games with the Kings last season, his third in the NHL. He was chosen by Los Angeles in the second round, the 61st pick overall, in the 2007 draft. He had 39 goals, 93 points, and 264 penalty minutes in 240 regular-season games. and Simmonds played in all 12 Kings playoff games the past two years.
Schenn, the younger brother of Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Luke Schenn, provides an even bigger upside. After being taken with the No. 5 overall pick in the 2009 draft, he has gotten a small taste of the NHL. Schenn played in one game during the 2009-10 season and eight more last season, notching a total of two assists.
Note to readers: WITH HKN-Flyers-Major-Shakeup