What to do about Mike Richards?

Yesterday Dean Lombardi announced that Mike Richards would not be bought out. Although Richards' $5.75 million cap hit through 2019-20, 41 points in 82 games, and demotion to the fourth line in the playoffs got people talking, Lombardi is standing by his center.

This offseason is the last opportunity to use a compliance buyout on Richards, which would cost around $19 million in real money and clear Richards' cap hit forever. The Kings could still use a standard buyout in 2015 or beyond, but that would still leave significant residual cap hits extending over long periods. So if the Kings keep Richards and his play falls off even more, they won't be able to get rid of his contract without a huge penalty.

But the Kings aren't necessarily keeping Richards around much longer. A buyout is not happening, but Lombardi said nothing about a trade. That would obviously be preferable to a buyout because a) it saves LA a lot of real money, b) they might get a useful return, and c) they could control Richards' destination, which is important given that both the Ducks and the Blackhawks are publicly hunting for second line centers.

It's plausible that another team might trade for Richards. He had a reputation as a gritty winner even before he came to LA, and winning two cups in three years has made him seem all the grittier. There are are also few realistic top six center UFA options - basically just Paul Stastny (good, but he'll command a higher cap hit than Richards), Mikhail Grabovski (a nice, affordable 2C in my opinion but many teams don't see him that way), Brad Richards (still a decent player, but 34 years old and in need of sheltering), and maybe David Legwand (will also be 34 next year). There are are several good centers on the trading block (Spezza, Kesler, Thornton), but unlike the teams trying to offload those players, the Kings aren't totally desperate and won't need to ask for ridiculous returns. Remembering that teams value grit highly, there's a decent chance someone would take him on.

With that said, Lombardi's comments did not create the impression he was looking to trade Richards. In his public comments Lombardi spoke of "trusting" Richards and being "locked in" to his center after the deadline passed. The GM attributed Richards' struggles to training and preparation, not aging. If he's right, that implies Richards' problems are fixable. Lombardi even called Richards "in his prime" at 29. That's not an analytics-friendly statement. Offensively, skilled forwards tend to peak around ages 25-26. Scoring and possession both start to decline well before 29. Richards' problems likely have more to do with age than Lombardi wants to admit.

It's possible Lombardi is bluffing in order to protect Richards' trade value, but it sure sounds like Richards is staying. Is that a huge mistake?

Let's start with Richards as a possession player. We'll look at his year-to-year dCorsi. dCorsi takes a player's Corsi% and subtracts an "expected" Corsi% for that player, which is based on zone starts, quality of competition, and quality of teammates. It's a good way to adjust a player's possession numbers for context in one stat. It should be noted that dCorsi is a new stat, involves some complicated formulas, and has not been thoroughly peer reviewed by the analytics community. So proceed with caution. Anyway, the graph, from the awesome @Mimicohero:

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If you don't want to use dCorsi, simply looking at Richards' Corsi% compared to his teammates' tells a similar story. This metric underrates Richards since he plays difficult minutes (moreso in Philly than in LA), but is still useful for showing trends over time. The graph, also from the amazing @Mimicohero:

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Yikes. The strange thing is that Richards actually played much tougher minutes in Philadelphia than he did in Los Angeles. He just fell off dramatically as a possession player on arrival here. Whether that's due to aging, the concussion he suffered his first year here, difficulty adjusting to a new team, difficulty adjusting to a new conference, his training regimen, or some combination of factors, he did.

You can see why the Kings made the Richards trade in the first place - outpacing the team's performance while playing absolutely brutal minutes, as Richards' did from 2008 to 2010, is extremely valuable. But Richards hasn't been able to do that in LA. The Kings became a great possession team shortly after Richards arrived, but that's pretty much coincidence. Jeff Carter, Slava Voynov, and Darryl Sutter (and the subtraction of Jack Johnson) transformed LA from a good to great possession team. Richards, especially in his first year here, hasn't driven play at all.

Yet there is a little hope in these graphs. While I think a good chunk of this decline is aging related--and thus probably irreversible, and likely to keep getting worse--Richards has been better in the last two years. He still hasn't been good, but he has been better. Perhaps LA figured out something that was causing Richards difficulty and fixed it, and perhaps these adjustments will continue to help him. But that speculative hope has be weighed against concrete facts about forward aging, and the certainty that Richards' physical skills will continue to decline.

But it wasn't possession that clued most people in to Richards' decline. The 41 points in 82 games got people's attention. Here, I think there's reason for optimism. More graphs (much less pretty, since they're made by me, not Mimico):

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Add it all up and at 5v5 Richards scored 1.81 points/60 with a 8.12% on-ice sh% in Philadelphia and 1.35 points/60 with a 6.43% on-ice sh% in LA. This isn't bad news! On-ice sh% is largely luck-determined. It does decline a little bit with age, but it's probable that a good chunk of Richards' decline in scoring is due to factors that will regress favorably. If Richards receives a decent amount of ice time, his point total should be higher next year. It's not likely to return to Philadelphia levels, but it's equally unlikely to stay this bad. Encouragingly, Richards' shot rate recovered a bit last year. He generated 6.87 shots/60, which was a nice bounce back after taking just 5.29 the year before. If he keeps that shot rate up, and his personal sh% regresses closer to career averages, he'd get five or six more goals next year.

None of this will happen, of course, if Richards is stuck on the fourth line with Trevor Lewis and Kyle Clifford. Both of those guys also have horrid on-ice sh%s over the past three years, but unlike Richards, they have no prior track record of good offense. Over Lewis' career the Kings have shot 4.89% while he's on the ice 5v5, and while I would bet on that regressing a little bit, he clearly drives that number down. If the Kings want Richards' numbers to rebound, they'll have to promote him.

Fortunately, there is a logical spot for Richards, on the third line with Dwight King and Justin Williams. Richards would be a much better offensive fit there than Stoll, and would have Williams to compensate for his possession shortcomings. King and Williams are good enough that, with any luck, Richards' point totals will rebound next year.

I speculated earlier that Richards might be tradable now, but even if I'm right the return won't be much. If he has another bad season on the fourth line and posts another bad point total, his trade value might sink to zero. With compliance buyouts no longer a thing after 2013-14, that's a disaster. On the other hand, if he posts 50-55 points next year while maintaining his excellent reputation for defense and grit, his trade value would probably become higher than it is now.

So if the Kings want to keep Richards, they have to entrust him with actual responsibility. Letting him rot on the fourth line limits his ability to help the team. It also destroys his trade value and means the Kings are going to get stuck with his $5.75 million cap hit as Richards enters his mid-thirties. It would be better to simply buy Richards out or trade him for nothing than to do that.

Richards isn't worth his cap hit now, and while his luck should bounce back, his physical skills will only get worse. The Kings don't want to keep this contract long term. But with better minutes Richards has a chance to make a positive impact over the next year or two. Even if he can't do that, those minutes should at least keep his value high enough that the Kings can flip him next deadline or offseason. There's risk here - maybe Richards' decline will accelerate next year, or maybe he'll get hurt, and this plan won't work. But if the Kings insist on keeping Mike Richards, and all indications are that they will, they're better off trusting him.