Top Shelf: Richards' contract still issue for Kings

Philadelphia, PA ( - Mike Richards boasts intangible qualities most NHL general managers only dream about.

Too bad his contract has become a GM's nightmare.

Although the Los Angeles Kings' decision to place Richards on waivers was primarily a salary cap move, there is a sad reality at the heart of the story. The fact of the matter is the former All-Star forward who became a champion in L.A. simply isn't earning his keep these days.

Richards was placed on waivers Monday and there was never a chance he wouldn't clear. Carrying an annual cap hit of $5.75 million through the 2019-20 season, the contract signed with Philadelphia in December 2007 has made Richards a wealthy man, but to NHL GMs the mammoth deal is an albatross around the 29- year-old's neck.

Reports out of Los Angeles suggest Kings GM Dean Lombardi tried his best to deal Richards over the weekend, but nothing materialized. When Lombardi realized he couldn't dump Richards salary on another team via a trade, the decision to waive him became necessary.

The deadline to claim Richards was Tuesday at 9 a.m. ET, and, as expected, no takers came forward. The Kings now can assign Richards to their AHL affiliate, the Manchester Monarchs, and see $925,000 of his cap hit come off the books.

It may not seem like much, but even the tiniest bit of relief helps the cap- strapped Kings. Still, Lombardi has to be kicking himself for not using a compliance buyout on Richards when he had the chance.

The NHL's collective bargaining agreement allowed teams to rid themselves of unwanted cap hits following the 2012-13 and 2013-14 seasons. To many in the media, it seemed like a foregone conclusion Lombardi would buy out Richards and make him a free agent, especially since the summer of 2014 marked the last chance for NHL's teams to use compliance buyouts. Instead, the GM opted to keep Richards in the fold and bet on the forward regaining his old form, and now it seems like a rare error in judgment from Lombardi.

Of course, Lombardi was aware of Richards' decline, but he chose to keep him around because of the intangibles he brings to the table. The former Flyers captain has a reputation as a guy who puts the goals of his team first while his personal achievements place a distant second.

"You're loathe to ever give up on that kind of player, it's very difficult to find that special ingredient," Lombardi said last summer while explaining why he declined to buy out Richards. "Even through his negatives this year, who rises to the occasion in the end? Time and again he shows up at critical moments."

There is little doubt Richards, who turns 30 in a few weeks, played a positive role in Darryl Sutter's locker room during the Kings' championship runs in 2012 and '14, but it's clear the head coach is depending less and less on the veteran when it comes to actual playing time.

When Richards came to L.A. in a trade with Philadelphia during the summer of 2011, he was seen as a potential missing piece for a Kings team with plenty of young talent and that proved to be true, in the short term at least.

Richards averaged 19 minutes, 30 seconds of ice time per game in the 2012 playoffs, as only star centerman Anze Kopitar and captain Dustin Brown received more playing time among Kings forwards. During last season's run to the Cup, however, his ice dropped to 15:32, leaving Richards 14th on the team and seventh among forwards.

The trend of decreased playing time has continued this season with Richards logging 13:41 of ice time on average through 47 games. His production has fallen off, too, as Richards has managed only 15 points and the normally reliable two-way forward also is sporting a minus-seven rating.

Lombardi spoke Monday to the Los Angeles Times about the decision to waive Richards and used a baseball analogy to try to make sense of his embattled forward's struggles.

"Mike, through his career, has shown he can be a .330 hitter, 80 RBIs, an All- Star player," Lombardi said. "Maybe at this stage, maybe it's not fair, but I still think he is capable of being a .280 hitter and (can) do a lot of those things for you that only he can do. Let's face it: right now he's batting .200. I don't see any reason why he can't get back to that. He's gotta do what he's gotta do."

For me, the world of the NBA offers the best comparison for Richards, who always seemed like the NHL's version of Allen Iverson. While Iverson was blessed with superior athletic ability that resulted in him getting selected No. 1 overall by the Philadelphia 76ers, Richards also was a first-round pick by the Flyers and became the face of a Philly franchise.

Also like Iverson, Richards' off-ice habits led him to spar with the Philadelphia media, but few people ever questioned either player's work ethic when it came time to play a game. And although both Iverson and Richards were undersized for their respective sports, neither man ever blinked when it came time to pay a physical price for their teams.

Sadly, it's beginning to seem like the parallels may not end there. The wear and tear eroded Iverson's ability until eventually he became a shell of his former self and quietly faded out of the NBA.

Only time will tell if Richards can avoid a similar fate, but his struggles over the past two seasons are not a promising sign.

Still, the veteran can count his coach among the folks who still believe he can get his career back on track.

"Lots of players go on waivers. Lots of players clear waivers," Sutter said. "And lots of players still have great years in front of them."