EL SEGUNDO, CA — As much as Los Angeles Kings President/General Manager Dean Lombardi talks when the media can get ahold of him for an interview, we often have to go through channels to reach him and sometimes, it can take weeks to finally get a chance to speak with him.
But on this day, Lombardi came downstairs from his offices at the Kings’ practice facility, the Toyota Sports Center in El Segundo, California, and asked the local media watching the team practice…
“Does anyone need to talk to me?”
Of course, he knew that, after having placed veteran center Mike Richards on waivers earlier in the day, the answer would be a resounding “yes.”
To be sure, something was going to have to give, eventually, with Richards still underperforming after a bad 2013-14 season. Nevertheless, even though Richards was reportedly the subject of several potential trades that went sour, given his stature, and what he has accomplished in the National Hockey League, placing him on waivers still came as a quite the shock.
Lombardi indicated that the he did not reach the decision quickly.
“It’s a process you work through, right? It’s not like it all of a sudden dawns on you,” he said. “I mean, you’re starting to think about it, and you work through the process. I think it’s fair to say that we made a final decision on this, that we were going to, one way or another, deal with it after the All-Star break.”
Richards’ decline, from being a critical piece of the puzzle during the Kings’ run to the 2011-12 Stanley Cup, their first championship in what was then the 45-year history of the franchise, has been glaring. But Lombardi believes that Richards can find his game again.
“The way I look at this, Mike, in his career, he’s shown he can be a .330 hitter and get you 80 RBI’s as an All-Star player,” Lombardi said, using one of his all-too-familiar baseball analogies. “So, maybe at this stage, maybe it’s not there. But I still assume he’s capable of being a .280 hitter and doing a lot of those things for you that only he can do. Let’s face it, right now, he’s batting .200, but I don’t see any reason why he can’t get back to that.”
“He’s got to do what he’s got to do,” Lombardi added. “The only analogy, too, you can come up [with]—there’s a lot things that I saw that reminded me of where Teemu Selanne was at this stage. I remember when he had fallen off the map, it looked like, in Colorado. It looked like he was done, and then he started changing some things, and then went on to two great—ten years for crying out loud.”
Head coach Darryl Sutter agreed.
“From a personal standpoint, from a coaching standpoint, Mike’s been a really good player for us, obviously, and he’s had a tough year, this year,” said Sutter. “It’s natural for people on the outside to want to have all the answers, but you know what? Mike’s still got lots of game left, and he’s been frustrated with it this year, too.”
“I think he’s still got lots of game left, that’s how I feel,” added Sutter. “I feel the very same way as when [veteran center] Colin Fraser was waived last year—how you feel about those guys because of what they went through, not just to win championships, but what they went through here in terms of helping get the team back to where it should be, in terms of compete and work, and all that.”
“That’s how I still see Mike. This is hockey, and some of you guys don’t get it, period. Lots of players go on waivers, and lots of players clear waivers, and lots of players still have great years in front of them. It’s just that there are people in the media who continue to want to beat people up because they can’t do it themselves. It’s frustrating. I think Mike’s still got lots of hockey left.”
Speaking of getting beaten up, figuratively, anyway, Lombardi is, once again, facing heavy criticism for not buying out Richards’ contract last summer, when he had the opportunity to remove him from their salary cap.
Today, Lombardi held firm on his decision to show some loyalty to a player who has done a lot for his team.
“We expect loyalty from our players,” he noted. “I think it’s a two-way street, and I think, under the circumstances, what he had done for us, I thought he deserved a chance to get back to what he knows he was capable of. That’s a hard balance, and obviously, I’ve thought about that a lot.”
“There’s a new wave thing out there, that players are commodities, and things like passion and loyalty—those values that I thought made sports so special—the commodities guys will tell you they don’t matter,” he added. “Well, it’s been a big part of the success of this team, I certainly believe, and that’s kind of the way that I came down on it, that if you’re going to expect loyalties from your players, you have to, at times, show loyalties to them. Then the issue becomes, ‘where’s that line?’”
Indeed, Lombardi held firm in his beliefs about intangibles, including loyalty, being a big part of what makes a championship team.
“I’m never going to lose my belief in those values being critical, but I think, as we see in the cap era, the cap is actually designed a lot of times—the function is to eliminate those type of emotions, and unfortunately, I still believe they’re still a critical part of a good team,” he emphasized. “Even in retrospect, if you use the commodities angle, you say, ‘well, it should’ve been easy.’ If you use the belief in the intangibles, then it’s not.”
“It is what it is,” he added. “But in the end, I felt he deserved that chance for all he had done for us. I don’t think there’s any question we don’t win that first Cup without what he did for this team, and obviously, we don’t win the second one. But there’s still got to be a certain level here that has to get done.”
Other NHL teams have until 9:00 AM PST on January 27 to claim Richards off of waivers. But that is highly unlikely due to his $5.75 million per season salary cap hit and the term of his contract.
But what if Richards, a respected NHL veteran, chooses not to accept demotion?
For the record, there has been no indication that Richards would refuse to report to Manchester. Nevertheless, reporters asked Lombardi about that possibility.
“If he doesn’t report, what happens? That’s easy,” said Lombardi. “He’ll be suspended.”
It must be noted here that any NHL player who refuses to report for a minor league assignment would also be suspended. As such, Lombardi was not indicating that this would be a punitive measure, or that he believes that Richards would refuse to report.
That said, Lombardi is hoping Richards will look at this an as opportunity to get his game in order.
“The way the schedule is in Manchester, you’re probably able to work on some things you don’t have the time to up here,” Lombardi noted. “So if he does go down and attack this, there’s no reason he can’t come back. Our [salary] cap is the same. In terms of the numbers him going down takes [$925,000] off, and now, another guy goes in who’s a young player, it’s the same.”
“There’s time for him to easily clean some of this up and be back here, and be what he usually is in the playoffs,” Lombardi added. “But if he doesn’t want to report, I guess we’re not going that route.”
As for the team, Lombardi hinted that the team’s current malaise was a factor in the decision.
“There’s always a concern, because in the end, it’s them getting it done,” he noted. “But, let’s face it, these decisions are all made for the team, quite frankly.”
Lamenting the decision he had to make, Lombardi acknowledged how tough it was for everyone involved.
“The process isn’t done, obviously, because you’ve still got to clear [waivers],” said Lombardi. “We’ll talk a little more tomorrow. I’m sure it’s not easy on anybody, but you know, these are the tough decisions you’ve got to make.”
Sutter did not want to speak for Richards on how he might feel about the decision.
“I don’t know, you’d have to talk to him,” he said. “I mean, what I said is how I feel. I feel strongly about Mike Richards. I can’t say it any other way. I still think he has lots of hockey left in him. [If] he re-finds his passion and his love for the game—that’s always been the strength of Mike. He’ll re-find that and go from there.”
“It’s up to Mike,” Lombardi stressed. “There’s no [doubt] in my mind. I believe that if he wants to, that he can get back to that. But it’s going to be up to him.”
Raw Audio Interviews
(Extraneous material and dead air have been removed; click on the arrow to listen):
Los Angeles Kings President/General Manager Dean Lombardi (5:51)
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