Defending Mike Richards

Defending Richards

“What have you done for me lately?”

In some ways, that’s a fair question. It’s not as though you and I can simply work hard at our jobs for a couple years, then one day wear a suspiciously stiff bathrobe to the office and proceed to gleefully eat our coworkers’ lunch out of the fridge.

On the other hand, it’s also an insidious question. It cruelly reduces us to our most recent selves, casting a convenient amnesia over past struggles and accomplishments alike.

Over the past two and a half years, I would say that Mike Richards has become the most polarizing figure on the LA Kings (at least for his on-ice activities), except that’s not true. There’s not much polarization at all, given that seemingly every fan is vocal – cavalierly so, glib even – in their newfound distaste for Mike Richards.

https://twitter.com/socalfan61392/status/520063804026019840


https://twitter.com/jbehindtheglass/status/475451929753972736

By now, you’ve figured out that I don’t support this widely held and harshly negative attitude toward Mike Richards, for a variety of reasons. Kings fans’ growing sentiment towards Richards has been bothering me for a while, and it’s about time someone spoke up to try and stem the swelling tide of overly negative group-think against No. 10.

I’m King Tufficult, Esq. – and I’m here today to Defend Mike Richards. I’ll be arguing my case from three main angles: the INTANGIBLES, the NUMBERS, and finally the EMOTIONAL. As a member of the jury, you are instructed to keep an open mind, and advised to keep an open beverage. Let’s begin the proceedings.

 

DEFENDING MIKE RICHARDS: THE ‘INTANGIBLES’ APPEAL

“Imagine smiling after a slap in the face. Then, think of doing it twenty-four hours a day.” – Markus Zusak, “The Book Thief”

We can start by admitting that Mike Richards’ point totals have plainly decreased from his four best years in Philadelphia. This is not in question, nor is it necessarily undeserving of rebuke or criticism. That is my disclaimer for the following.

Hockey players are human beings. I know, that tired cliché has been trotted out enough times for the sentence to practically lose its meaning, but there is a sobering and powerfully real truth to that phrase. I don’t doubt that Mike Richards feels a tremendous amount of pressure to live up to his contract as well as his past performance. I also don’t doubt that last summer’s buyout talk was probably quite difficult to stomach for such a proud player and proven champion.

Photo courtesy @MRichie_10

Mike Richards, a real human being. (Photo courtesy @MRichie_10)

Don’t forget, we’re talking about a player who has missed a grand total of eight regular season games during his time with the Kings (despite plenty of ailments). A player with concussion history, who is on the smaller side, who has a physical edge to his game, and who has been a member of three unusually lengthy and bruising playoff runs in the last three years. Don’t forget that last year alone it took the Kings 26 games to complete their championship run in the playoffs. That’s more than a quarter of a regular season!

True, the same could be said for any player on the Kings, but that’s ignoring one key piece of information. That is, that Mike Richards is most likely past his “prime.”

Yes, that’s right. I know, we would all like each of the Kings players to contribute points at a consistently high level for long stretches of an epic career. But in all likelihood, Mike Richards is currently at a point on the bell curve of his NHL career that sits somewhere to the right of its peak. Mike is 29 years old. I am also 29 years old. While I’m in good shape, am a gym-goer and lead an active lifestyle, I can’t help but notice certain things. If I strain my shoulder in the gym, it doesn’t heal itself in a day or two like it would when I was 22 and basically Wolverine. I can no longer go a couple months without running, and suddenly be fine spontaneously entering a 5K.

King Tufficult attempting to run a 5k

The point is, nobody knows what the career arc for any pro athlete will look like. Some are able to post consistently high point totals year after year, and some have a few hot statistical years amongst a career of otherwise average numbers. If Mike Richards is indeed closer to the latter type of player, we cannot hate him for aging and entering the least statistically productive portion of his career.

The furious answer you probably have to that argument is that Mike Richards is currently under contract until the 2019-2020 season, when he will be 35 years old – and still at a $5.75 million AAV.

My rebuttal to that is twofold: First, there is a difference between hating a contract and hating a player. What I have seen from Kings fans toward Mike Richards is downright vitriolic (I’ll get to why that’s so wrong in the final part of this post), and usually directed at the player himself, not his contract. Secondly, what do you think a GM hopes he’s paying for when he takes on a player’s contract? He’s most likely hoping that he’s using that money to help “buy” his franchise a championship. On paper, you cannot dispute that the Kings went 45 years without a Stanley Cup, acquired Mike Richards, and promptly won two cups in the next three years.

Correlation does not imply causation, and I’m certainly not claiming that Mike Richards is the reason the Kings have two Stanley Cup championships. However, there is simply no denying that Dean Lombardi got what he paid for. It’s impossible to only take on sexy, perfect contracts. That’s called professional sports and the salary cap. What you can do as a GM, though, is manipulate the options you have as best you can, in order to assemble that elusive championship team formula. And Mike Richards has shown – twice – that he can be a part of a winning team formula, even with his albatross of a contract.

In some ways, I understand. In the great theatre of sports, it is fun to have a villain, even on your own team. But this particular villain is unfairly cast. Richards is well-liked and respected by his teammates, and doesn’t complain when Darryl Sutter reduces his role or drops him to the 4th line. Richards is a leader, a player who has won at virtually every level that exists, and the only human in professional sports history to come back from a 3-0 playoff series deficit twice. Forget about his contract for a minute, and tell me that a gritty, team-first guy who has shown he’s capable of those feats isn’t a valuable addition to any team?

 

DEFENDING MIKE RICHARDS: THE ‘NUMBERS’ APPEAL

https://twitter.com/KingsMenPodcast/status/459481213577998336

We’ll start with the bad news here, and that is the plain fact that Mike Richards’ point totals since arriving in California are disappointing. After four seasons in Philadelphia scoring 28, 30, 31, and 23 goals, Richards has never scored more than 18 with the Kings. He’s had as many as 80 points in a season, but never more than 44 in Los Angeles. Based on these figures, it’s tempting to do some quick math and bemoan the fact that each point Mike Richards has scored in LA (not including 2014-2015) cost us $45,275. Ouch.

Yet, the story goes deeper than that. Let’s set aside for a moment the (critical and very relevant) fact that Richards was a part of the LA Kings’ first two Stanley Cup championships ever (we’ll deal more with that in the next section), and take a look at some of the ways his stats run deeper than simple point totals.

First, though obvious, it bears mentioning that the Kings play a wildly different style of hockey than the Philadelphia Flyers. Particularly when comparing the Flyers of 2007-2010 to the Kings of 2011-2015, we’re looking at two teams which value(d) offense first and defense first, respectively. Taking that into account, we also know that Mike Richards finds himself on a team that is very heavy on the center position, causing his average TOI to drop by a couple of minutes in LA. While none of this excuses the drop in points, it does begin to help explain it. Mike joins the Kings as a player who is growing older, on a center-heavy, defense-first team in the Western Conference.

Let’s look next at 2013-2014, the first truly bad year of point totals for Richards (in the previous, lockout-shortened season, Richards was actually on pace for 24 goals). The first thing that stands out about Mike’s 2013-2014 (besides the fact that he, cough, won the Stanley Cup) is his insanely low shooting percentage of 7.0%. That number is low enough compared to his career totals that we can safely assume it was an aberration – essentially, bad luck.

In other words, while his point totals may indeed be declining overall, this gives us a clear piece of evidence to be cautiously optimistic that Richards’ points could regress a bit back towards his mean.

What about the rest of those Fancy Stats™? Well, let’s start by taking a look at this graph courtesy of HockeyAnalysis.com:

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Mike Richards’ 5v5 iFenwick/iCorsi rates (Courtesy of HockeyAnalysis.com)

One of the things this tells us is that Richards’ individual Fenwick has actually remained very consistent over time. His iCorsi has dipped a bit more noticeably, but there’s probably an explanation for that too: remember that Corsi is simply all shots directed at the net, where Fenwick does not count shots blocked by the opposition. If Richards’ Fenwick remains consistent but his Corsi is dipping, that suggests to me that he is simply being more selective with his shot choice. He’s still driving possession as much as he ever has, but he’s not hitting defenders with his shots as much. This hypothesis is also supported by the fact that his overall shot totals have dropped from an average of 218 per season during his 4 best seasons on the Flyers, to 164 in his first three seasons with the Kings.

Let’s talk about luck for a moment, which is most accurately tracked statistically with the PDO stat, where a value of 100 represents average luck. Richards’ individual PDO has hovered around 97, or three full percentage points below average, for the past three seasons. This season, when the score is close (within 1 goal), the poor guy has a PDO of 95.2 at the time of this writing. Compare that to Richards’ 2010-2011 in Philly, where he enjoyed a game close PDO of 103.6.

All this to say that the fancy stats suggest that Richards might not have been as good as his Philly point totals suggest, nor as bad as his LA totals imply. Other than this season, where Sutter is giving him a bit of a break, Richards has pretty much spent his zone starts in equal thirds throughout his career. His possession metrics have remained constant.

Over the last two seasons, when the Kings are trailing in the game, Richards provides a first assist at a rate of 0.80 per 60 minutes. That’s nearly double the rate he produced a first assist in the same situation during some of his most productive years as a Flyer. What does this suggest? It suggests that when the Kings are behind and they need someone to be a playmaker, Richards is actually stepping up more now than at any time in his career.

You can claim that I’m cherry-picking by looking at these esoteric stats, but I’m asserting that this is a way of using hard evidence to bear out things that are normally categorized as intangible. We know that Mike Richards has heart, but these stats give us a way of quantifying that. We know that he’s probably been unlucky, but now we have a way of measuring that.

Fancy stats say that when the game is close or the team is trailing, his effort and results have actually increased by a significant margin (in some cases, double) since joining the Kings. This might not totally make up for the declining point totals, but it does refute the assertion that he’s not adding value to the team.

And if you want to tell me that fancy stats are useless, well then… I have a job in the Toronto Maple Leafs’ front office for you.

 

DEFENDING MIKE RICHARDS: THE ‘EMOTIONAL’ APPEAL

The way a team plays as a whole determines its success. You may have the greatest bunch of individual stars in the world, but if they don’t play together, the club won’t be worth a dime. – Babe Ruth

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cId7ZKp6wwQ

Other than the Wayne Gretzky trade, there is no trade that has made such a lasting impression in my mind as the one that occurred on June 23, 2011 between the Kings and the Flyers. After a few years of mediocrity (or worse), the prior two years had re-ignited my passion for the team. Especially given that we didn’t even have Kopitar for the Sharks series in 2011, I really felt a sense that the team was poised to break out in the next year or two. It was an exciting time to be a Kings fan again, and that was really saying something.

When the headline popped up on my computer monitor proclaiming that the Kings had traded Brayden Schenn, Wayne Simmonds, and a second-rounder for Mike Richards, my jaw hit the floor and I immediately ran down the hall to my roommate to tell him the news. Babbling, I could hardly contain my excitement. I was very familiar with Mike Richards and his reputation as a leader, playmaker, and gritty effort-first guy, and I immediately loved the trade. “Dean’s trying to win now!” I proclaimed to my roommate with a crazed Cheshire Cat grin. Never mind that my roommate didn’t know who Dean was, or even what icing was. I was so sure that this was the right move, I needed to verbalize my thoughts to someone (I didn’t have a Twitter account yet).

As a smaller guy myself, I loved that Richards had done well for himself and not shied away from physical play despite being smaller than average for an NHL player. I watched YouTube video of “The Shift,” again and again, picturing such a display of heart occurring on my beloved Kings instead of orange and black.

Of course, the rest was history.

You know, we’re spoiled now. We’re spoiled because we’ve come to expect success from a team that had no reason to expect any such thing before 2012. But I remember, acutely, the feeling of wondering if I was spending my whole life rooting for the hockey equivalent of the Chicago Cubs. After exiting the 2011 playoff series against the Sharks, I remember having these twisted visions in my mind of going to Staples Center with my grandchildren, as they desperately hoped that poor granddad would get to see the Kings win in his lifetime before cirrhosis of the liver old age took him to that great equipment room in the sky.

That horrible alternate universe will never come to fruition now, because history has already been made. The Kings have won the Stanley Cup, twice – and largely with the same team members.

And Mike Richards was a big part of both of those teams.

I don’t give a damn if Mike Richards scores two goals the rest of the year (as long as he continues to give an honest effort), I’m not turning on him. When I’m 82 years old and the Kings have been a franchise for 100 years, I’ll look back on this first truly great chapter in their history, and I’ll smile. I’ll remember how one page of that unbelievable story is about a trade for a proven leader and winner that was followed immediately by the most exciting Spring of my sports fan life.

I’ll remember how, that first magical April, Mike Richards made an unmistakable statement by killing Alexandre Burrows.

I’ll remember Richards’ Game 3 of the 2012 Blues series, where he notched a Gordie Howe hat trick and irreparably deflated the morale of St. Louis.

I’ll remember Mike Richards hoisting the Stanley Cup in 2012, the joy as he stood side by side with Jeff Carter, their demons exorcised on the same day as every LA hockey fan’s were.

I’ll remember how, in 2013’s playoff elimination game, everyone thought the Kings were toast, until Mike Richards scored with 9.4 seconds left to keep the postseason alive (for a few more minutes, at least).

I’ll remember Richards driving the dagger into New York with the final goal of Game 3 during the 2014 Final.

Of course, it goes without saying that I’ll remember dozens of great moments achieved by other Kings, as well.

But Mike Richards, too, is an integral thread in the fabric that is this unarguably magical LA Kings team – a team that has done things like come back from a 3-0 series deficit, win three Game 7s on the road, became the first No. 8 seed in professional sports history to win a championship…

Have you forgotten already?

How can we turn on a person who was a vital part of those historic feats, simply because they are struggling today? What does that say about what those championship teams really mean to us? Are players just faceless robots who spit out stats, numbers that somehow act as the final word on their ultimate worth and legacy?

Or are they human beings who each play a role – whether large, small, or something in-between?

I’ll always be especially grateful for the memories I have of the Los Angeles Kings over the past three-plus years. And for the rest of my life, when I play back that movie reel in my mind of the joy I’ve felt during these years – the catharsis, the celebration, the excitement, the incredulity – I’ll remember something else, as well:

During one of the greatest times of my life, jersey No. 10 for the Los Angeles Kings was worn by Mike Richards.

And I’m not willing to denigrate or forget that, no matter what the future of his career holds.

As a child, King Tufficult liked to hang out at Iceoplex to watch his dad’s summer skating group that included many gloriously mulleted individuals. Some of the people attached to those mullets played for the early 90′s LA Kings. It was destiny. Since then, King Tufficult is best known for extensively traveling in Europe during the Cup Finals and writing “The Post” after Game 6 of the 2014 WCF. If you're a glutton for punishment, you can follow King Tufficult on Twitter @KingTufficult.