Is Mike Richards' time with Kings nearing its end?

Los Angeles Kings centre Mike Richards looks on during Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final against the...

Los Angeles Kings centre Mike Richards looks on during Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final against the New York Rangers at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, June 4, 2014. (BRUCE BENNETT/Getty Images/AFP)

Steve Simmons, Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 11:24 PM ET

LOS ANGELES - This is the Los Angeles Kings second run at the Stanley Cup and almost certainly it won’t be their last

They have Jonathan Quick and Jeff Carter signed up for eight more years, Drew Doughty for five more, Anze Kopitar for two additional seasons — the most important players with the most important contracts.

But the contract nobody cares to talk about belongs to Mike Richards, the one-time star and game-changer, who now carries around the boondoggle of being hockey’s highest paid fourth-line centre. Six years remain on his deal at a salary cap hit of $5.75 million a year, but few expect him to be a King beyond the end of this month.

The pragmatism of hockey at its highest level means a transaction will likely come some time after the Stanley Cup parade, a trade, a buyout, something that makes economic sense for one of the better managed teams in the sport.

For now, as it always has been with Richards, it’s about winning. Soon, it may be about winning and saying goodbye, a Tom Henke kind of ending in which the rules dictate the how and when of his departure.

The challenge for general manager Dean Lombardi is this: If he wants to sign playoff leading goal scorer Marion Gaborik, it has to be at the expense of someone. That someone likely being Richards.

After all, he used to be Mike Richards, big-time player, who played big minutes in the biggest games and almost always on the winning team. He still has the name, but with slower feet, much slower in a game increasingly faster, with diminishing value quantified in the minutes he plays each playoff night.

“He’s still smart, still a gamer, not lazy in his game,” said TSN hockey analyst Ray Ferraro. “He’s not really a fourth-line centre, and plays important roles on penalty kill and power play.”

But the ice-time numbers read like a stock trending in the wrong direction.

In 2010, when Philadelphia was a goaltender away from winning, he played more than 20 minutes a playoff game.

In 2012, when the Kings won their first Cup, he played 19-plus minutes a game, the kind of minutes you would expect from a first- or second-line centre on a championship team.

Now, it’s 15-plus minutes a night, way behind Kopitar and the former winger Carter, behind the dependable Jarret Stoll and almost two minutes behind the 16:58 he played during this season.

If it bothers Richards, the way it bothers most players, he won’t share those feelings. It’s never easy, even within the framework of any team, to take on a lesser role, to have your time chipped away at, to watch the statistics thin out. Richards is by no means old; he’s only 29.

But he does look a step and a half slow. And the offensive numbers aren’t there the way they once were.

You can pull out the old Harry Neale line and it may be appropriate here: He has to play better to play more and he has to play more to play better.

And while employing him less than ever, Darryl Sutter believes in Richards history as much as anything else because he believes in winning

When asked if it was difficult for coach and player to come to grips with a diminished role, especially for the kind of player who would be central to world junior and Olympic victories, Sutter said it hasn’t been difficult at all.

“I don’t think it’s very hard at all if you have a good relationship with the player,” said Sutter. “And when that coach has a track record of winning with the player. That player has a track record of winning and for sure understanding what his role is. Basically he just wins.

“He has had to accept roles. Doesn’t matter if you think he’s a first-line centreman or second-line centreman. The only reward for somebody like Mike Richards in all this is winning. He’s all set. He’s won everything. (Now) it’s just winning again, that’s all.”

In the quicksand skating version of Los Angeles’ sloppy victory in Game 1, Sutter didn’t like the way his team played and kept changing his lines around but he stuck to his primary blueprint: At centre, Kopitar played the most, followed by Carter, Stoll and then Richards, who played seven minutes less than Kopitar, almost six minutes less than Carter.

But when it mattered most, who made the pass to Justin Williams on the overtime winner? It was Richards. He still does that. Sutter may not overplay him but he still relies on him in key situations.

“You don’t grow up thinking about playing in an NHL game,” Richards told Scott Burnside of espn.com. “You grow up thinking of winning the Stanley Cup.”

That’s the goal. Even if it’s his last shot in Los Angeles.


Videos

Photos