Kings stay loyal to Mike Richards

Dean Lombardi had been preparing for months for this exit meeting.

The GM of the Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings was hoping to hear what he needed to hear from Mike Richards.

And he did.

"His self-analysis was dead on," Lombardi told ESPN.com Tuesday.

Because of it, the NHL’s last compliance buyout window of this CBA (buyouts that don’t count against the salary cap) will come and go with Richards staying put.

It’s no small decision. Richards has six years left on a deal that counts $5.75 million per season on the Kings’ cap.

Richards’ play deteriorated so badly during the regular season that he fall to fourth-line status. The rap was that Richards wasn’t in great physical shape when the season started. It’s hard in this league to play catch-up all year from that perspective.

"Everyone knows what this guy brings," Lombardi said. "I just think he’s at a stage in his career where he has to change the way he prepares in the offseason. You can’t prepare the same way at 29 you did at 22. That’s what it comes down to."

Richards maintained that fourth-line role in the playoffs, although what transpired this spring is what the Kings have come to expect from him: some clutch performances in helping L.A. wins its second Cup in three years.

That playoff performance helped sway the Kings' front office to keep him, but hearing from Richards himself in the exit meeting was important, too.

So it comes down to this: Lombardi has put his trust in a player he dearly loves. But it’s big-time trust given the compliance buyout window that closes June 30 for the rest of this CBA.

Lombardi has faith in a player who has had big moments.

"We don’t win the first Cup without him," Lombardi said. "In terms of what he brought to the table in terms of winning, what he did in that Vancouver series in 2012 set the tone for 'this is how you win a playoff series.' Which means we’re not where we are this year without having won the first Cup.

"You’re loath to ever give up on that kind of player, it’s very difficult to find that special ingredient. Even through his negatives this year, who rises to the occasion in the end? Time and again he shows up at critical moments."

Being that clutch player is a big reason Richards will stick around.

"No question," the Kings GM said. "That’s what you’d rather have, if you have a choice you’ll always take the playoff big-game player over the regular-season guy. But you still need to get both, particularly when you have a financial commitment under the cap; you can’t just write it off. So you have to maintain a certain level of performance in order to hold that salary slot. But he’s 29, he’s clearly capable of it. He plays his best hockey when everything is on the line, not just big games, but big moments."

There’s a "bigger picture" element to all this, too. These are the Kings. From Lombardi on down to the players, there’s a kind of chemistry and family spirit in that organization that’s almost unparalleled in the league. Richards is more to this franchise than just a player. Trading for him was the turning point, in many ways, for a rebuilding Kings team years ago, a moment when they turned the corner after acquiring a player who knew how to win.

There’s a glue factor here. So despite the salary cap implications and the risk involved in being locked in now for the rest of his contract, there’s a deep-rooted loyalty factor that Lombardi couldn’t ignore.

"There’s no question that the loyalty to him and what he’s done is significant," Lombardi said. "If you’re going to build something that has some emotional attachment, then you have to have loyalty mean something. Sure, you have to do it within reason. Going through this process, sure I know how much he gets paid, but he deserves our loyalty if he’s willing to give us that commitment."