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The curious decline of Mike Richards

After the 2007-08 NHL season, Mike Richards was about to get paid. He had just run up 75 points in 73 games at age 23, and wasn’t exactly a shrinking violet along the way. He tacked on 76 penalty minutes at 5’11” and nearly 200 pounds, and generally played the type of game hockey fans drool over.

He justifiably signed a huge deal while you were still allowed to, leaving the Philadelphia Flyers with a pretty reasonable $5.75 cap hit...through 2020.

Richards followed that deal up with an 80 point campaign including 30 goals, followed by another 30 goal season, and an Olympic gold medal. He ended up in Los Angeles, rarely missing a game along the way, and eventually added a Stanley Cup to his resume. Not bad.

As you’ve picked up by now, he’s been very good at hockey, which is a very good thing for a hockey player to be. But, as you would expect with a move to a more defensive team in a more defensive Conference, his personal numbers started to go down.

He fell two goals shy of 20 in 74 games in 2011-12 (scoring 44 total points, a pretty significant drop), but played 18.5 minutes a night while playing the crucial center position and driving play effectively for the Kings. He was a major reason for their success.

He was still effective during the lockout shortened campaign (thanks in part to a high shooting percentage), where he put up 32 points in 48 games.

….But this year...this year something's been different.

Richards has at times looked slow, and frequently seemed less involved. He only scored 11 times in 82 games, barely scratching over the 40-point mark with a Corsi-rel of -3.0%. The edge to his game that’s seen him average close to a PIM-per-game in his career dropped to a mere 28 penalty minutes. (PIMs aren’t good, but if you’re a player who plays with some sandpaper, they’re bound to happen.)

In his last five full seasons his total shots have been: 238 (Flyers, 79 games), 237 (Flyers, 82 games), 184 (Flyers, 81 games), 171 (Kings, 74 games), and 157 (Kings, 82 games). With shooting percentages generally hovering around comparable levels in the NHL (he had decent luck last year, bad luck this year), your ability to generate shots is crucial to your ability to generate goals.

His ice time fell to 16.7 minutes a night in 2013-14, and in playoffs it’s only been 15.3, where he’s racked up zero goals and zero assists for no points.

It’s sort of the chicken and the egg: are his offensive numbers so low because the Kings can’t score, or are the Kings offensive numbers lower because he can’t?

The questions of age are ones the general public won’t buy - he’s only 29, and has five years left on his contract - but they really need to be considered. I think he’s slowing down fairly significantly.

He’s moved out of his scoring prime, which for offensive players is roughly the 22-27 range, and he’s played a ton of hockey compared to most 29-year-olds. He’s laced up the skates for 758 NHL games including 101 brutally physical post-season battles (over only eight NHL seasons), most of which have come towards the latter half of his career. And, that style he’s played isn’t exactly one that’s allowed him to float around and get through many games without contact. He’s never been the most fleet-of-foot guy in the league, so losing a half-step is bound to affect his game more than most.

Richards was pretty darn good for the Kings last game in their third loss of the series against the Sharks. Richards is still pretty darn good in his defensive zone, and he’s fine coming through the neutral zone with the puck.

But at the offensive end of the ice, the Kings need more. They’re hoping for more. He hasn’t been able to create, and with the reality that Jonathan Quick might not be world-beating, that’s bad news for Los Angeles.

He’s put a lot of miles on his relatively young body. With five season left on his deal, the Kings are praying there’s more in the tank.

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