LOS ANGELES — On June 28, as expected, the Los Angeles Kings placed veteran center Mike Richards on unconditional waivers. Once he clears waivers, the Kings will buy out his contract.
Although the buy out will give the Kings immediate salary cap relief, giving them an estimated $4.5 million extra to work with under the cap per capfriendly.com and generalfanager.com (Kings salary cap would be an estimated $61.8 million, down from $66.4 million), the buy out will be amortized over ten years, as far as the salary cap is concerned, with the Kings taking the following cap hits:
- 2015-16: $1,216,666
- 2016-17: $1,716,666
- 2017-18: $2,716,666
- 2018-19: $4,216,666
- 2019-20: $4,216,666
- 2020-21: $1,466,666
- 2021-22: $1,466,666
- 2022-23: $1,466,666
- 2023-24: $1,466,666
- 2024-25: $1,466,666
Within minutes after Richards hit the waiver wire, Kings President/General Manager Dean Lombardi began to take a lot of criticism for not buying out Richards last summer, when he could have removed Richards’ salary from the Kings’ salary cap altogether without a lingering cap hit.
To be sure, that ten-year amortization will hurt down the road, eating up valuable salary cap space that could obviously be used to add talent. It could even be the difference between signing a player who could put the Kings over the top once again.
While Lombardi is being widely criticized, there is a side to this issue that everyone seems to be forgetting: that loyalty has played huge role in building the Kings’ team culture into what it is today.
As reported in this space on several occasions, from the day Lombardi took over as general manager of the Kings back in April 2006, building a strong team culture in which his team, for all intents and purposes, becomes a family, one in which the players would skate, full speed, into a brick wall for each other, was critical to their success, and that was proven in 2012 and 2014, when the Kings won the Stanley Cup.
Richards was a big part of all that, helping lead the Kings to the 2012 and 2014 Stanley Cup Championships.
“When you bring in a big player like [Richards], and this can be said for a lot of players whom we’ve brought in over the last year, it’s a message to the team,” winger and team captain Dustin Brown said on January 26, 2015. “We were that team that was kind of trending in the right direction, [but] when you have a trade that sends some young players out but brings a big piece (Richards) in, the time is now.”
Brown was referring to the blockbuster trade on June 23, 2011, with the Philadelphia Flyers in which the Kings sent right wing Wayne Simmonds, center prospect Brayden Schenn and a second round pick in the 2012 NHL Draft in exchange for Richards and the rights to Rob Bordson, who was not signed by the Kings.
“That’s the message I took when the deal went down,” Brown noted. “Obviously, we got [Jeff Carter] eight months later, or whatever it was. As a player, you get excited about that. I thought the excitement, from a players’ standpoint, when Rick got here, was ‘we’re going to take the next step.’”
“I’ve been through the rebuilding process, so that’s always exciting,” Brown added. “As a guy who was in this room when we traded for Rick, I was pretty excited about it.”
Part of the message to the team was not only that management was serious about making a run at the Stanley Cup, but it was also serious about what was necessary to become a champion. That solid team culture, which includes loyalty to one another, was absolutely crucial.
Indeed, Lombardi took note of that, but added that the players, including Richards, also deserve loyalty from management.
“We expect loyalty from our players,” Lombardi said on January 26, 2015. “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,” Lombardi 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?’”
In the end, Lombardi landed on Richards’ side of the line, choosing loyalty over the “hockey is a business” side.
“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.”
“I felt he deserved that chance for all he had done for us,” he added. “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.”
Lombardi certainly brings up a strong point about loyalty from management going back to the players, and there is no doubt that this has been a factor in Lombardi’s ability to keep his roster mostly intact for three seasons. That was a major factor in the Kings reaching the Western Conference Final in 2013, and winning the Stanley Cup in 2014.
In the end, Richards’ game declined sharply since the 2012 Stanley Cup win, leaving Lombardi no choice but to buy out his contract now. But should Lombardi have done it last summer when he was able to remove Richards’ salary from the Kings’ salary cap altogether, instead of waiting until now, leaving Richards’ salary to drag on the Kings’ salary cap for ten years?
If you look at this issue in a vacuum, Lombardi made a horrible mistake that could shackle the team for a decade. But player personnel decisions, especially those made in the salary cap era, are not made in a vacuum. As such, when you consider the loyalty aspect of the issue, it becomes one where Lombardi is damned if he does, and damned if he doesn’t.
Loyalty has certainly become a double-edged sword for Lombardi, who is in a Catch-22 situation of fairly epic proportions.
UPDATE: Hours after this story was published, the Kings announced that they have terminated Richards’ contract. Details to follow.
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