CHICAGO -- So, where is the line between evolution and decline?
Decline, if you're an NHL player -- especially one who plays with the tenacity Los Angeles Kings forward Mike Richards displays -- is inevitable. Evolution, the relevancy or ability to contribute on a meaningful basis, is not.
Perhaps Richards has examined the line and wondered where he might stand. But the evidence points in one direction for Richards, a former first-round pick and captain of the Philadelphia Flyers, and that is to evolution.
It is a process that is in some ways humbling and in other ways revelatory, one that has seen Richards embrace new challenges yet maintain his standing as a key member of a Kings team that is engaged in a third straight Western Conference finals series.
His role in that success has been somewhat overshadowed by the emergence of Anze Kopitar as a premier two-way center, Jeff Carter's goal-scoring acumen, and Drew Doughty's elite standing among defensemen. More recently, the acquisition of Marian Gaborik has, on the surface, continued to push Richards a little farther from the spotlight, a little further down the chart. Those are the appearances.
The reality? Not so clear.
"I think the thing that you appreciate the most about Richie is just he's a big-game player," former teammate Sean O'Donnell told ESPN.com. "If you look at the San Jose Game 6 and 7, or you look at Anaheim Game 6 and 7, those were his best games of the playoffs. He realizes when he's really, really needed by a team and he steps up."
Los Angeles Kings
O'Donnell played with the Chicago Blackhawks and the Kings before he retired following the 2011-12 season. He was also in Philadelphia in Richards' final season there before Richards was dealt to the Kings in June 2011.
"That Game 7 against Anaheim, he played almost 20 minutes, his faceoffs were over 70 percent. Playing with him in Philly and then watching him the last couple of years, he loves those crucial moments. He loves stepping up when the stakes are the highest," O'Donnell said. "The Kings have added some offensive weapons the last year or two, so his role has maybe pulled back a little bit that way, but his game, 200 feet on the ice and especially when the stakes are highest, are when he's the best."
Take Game 2 of the Western Conference finals on Wednesday night against the Blackhawks, for instance. With the Kings trailing 2-0 in the game and on the verge of falling behind 2-0 in the series, it was Richards who made a nice play tracking down a loose puck deep in the Chicago zone, faking a shot and sliding a neat pass to Justin Williams in front of the net. The puck caromed off Williams' skate and into the net to make the score 2-1 and set the stage for an improbable five-goal third period and 6-2 Kings victory.
Richards and teammate Jeff Carter were drafted by the Flyers in the first round in 2003, and the two became cornerstones of a renaissance that included a surprise trip to the 2010 Stanley Cup finals. Along the way, Richards was named captain of the Flyers at age 23 and named a finalist for the Frank J. Selke Trophy as the game's top two-way forward. He was named to the 2010 Canadian Olympic team and won a gold medal.
But with the successes, there were also moments of upheaval. Richards battled with the Philadelphia media over coverage of the team and how players were portrayed. There were reports of a party lifestyle enjoyed by many of the young Flyers, and in summer 2011, Richards and Carter were dealt, with Carter going to Columbus.
After averaging just shy of 30 goals in the three seasons prior, Richards' production dropped to 23 in 2010-11. He has yet to hit the 20-goal mark since joining the Kings, and his 11 goals this season are his lowest full-season total since his rookie year (2005-06).
You can debate the chicken-or-egg dynamic of what has happened with Richards in the past couple of years. Did his production decline as his role evolved, playing fewer minutes and with more defensive-minded wingers? Or was it that drop-off in production that prompted coach Darryl Sutter to use him in more limited roles?
What renders the debate somewhat moot is that Richards, who still has six years left on a contract that pays him $5.75 million annually, still finds ways to deliver his best hockey at the most opportune times. He still earns key power-play minutes and is a constant on the Kings' penalty kill.
"He's a real leader on this team," said Trevor Lewis, who has played alongside Richards for long stretches this spring. "I think he's probably used to playing more minutes and probably with more offensive players, but he's bought right in. And anything he can do to help the team, I think it's huge for him.
"I think it's a huge key for us to have four lines that can all play. Try to take a little bit more pressure off some of the other offensive guys and try and have all the lines chip in and score some big goals for us. I think it's big and he embraces it and I know he helps a lot of guys out there with his experiences and talking and stuff like that."
Former NHL player Keith Jones watched Richards' journey up close while in Philadelphia, and the NBCSN analyst said the transformation that has taken place in Los Angeles is interesting.
When Richards arrived in Philadelphia, there was all kinds of talk that he was going to be the next Bobby Clarke "and he appeared to be on his way to all that," Jones told ESPN.com. He was the captain, he had obvious leadership qualities, played strong at both ends of the ice, "the compete level was outstanding and the production was there."
You do wonder where the production has gone, Jones noted, suggesting that at least from afar, Richards' foot speed seems to have decreased. But Jones remains impressed with how Richards has never railed about his changing role with the Kings.
"He has settled into a role player-type position on the team," Jones said. "And never once have I seen him sulk about it or complain about it."
Yet for all the change, some of who Richards is and what he brings to the table remains constant. He is on the ice when the team is in need of a goal or when it needs to protect a lead.
"I think he's just a real character player," Jones said. "I think he has all those attributes, which is why he was a captain in Philadelphia early on. He's found a way to still be a factor, especially at key times."
The fact that Richards, a virtual lock to make the 2010 Olympic team from the get-go, wasn't even a bubble guy for the 2014 Sochi Games is an indication of his shifting standing within the hockey hierarchy. And yet Jones thinks of Richards in the same terms as other top-end players whose games evolved as their careers changed, players such as Kirk Muller and Bobby Carpenter or even Dave Andreychuk, who captained the Tampa Bay Lightning to their only Stanley Cup win, in 2004, near the end of his career.
"Those guys turned into real valuable pieces to the teams they ended up with in entirely different roles than they started with," Jones said.
"I think he's a really, really good centerman," Toews said. "He's got that edge. He's got that competitive side to him. He's got a lot of skill but I think he's always also got that fearless side of him where he can fight, he can play physical, he'll play real tough hockey.
"Probably a real good guy to have on your side during the playoffs. He's someone that we know is going to be at his best in a series like this, even if he hasn't produced as much as he had in the last couple of years. He's one of those guys that can make a difference in a series like, this so we've got to be aware of him."
Seabrook played with Richards at the junior level, and the two won a world junior championship together.
"He's one of those guys that'll do anything to win," Seabrook said. "He's a competitor. He puts it all out there on the line. He's really smart. He knows the areas to go into to score goals. He's good on the defensive side of the puck. I think he's a great player."
Patrick Sharp is another Blackhawk with strong ties to Richards. The two are from the same outpost part of northern Ontario. They also played together in the minors with the Flyers' organization, winning an American Hockey League championship together.
"Got a lot of respect for what he can do," Sharp said. "He's a guy that can do a little bit of everything. Takes pride in the defensive side of the game. Playing physical, winning faceoffs, killing penalties. Don't forget he's got that offensive touch. Plays the power play. He can play the point on the power play. He seems to do everything well. He's a guy that you want on your team and he's a good person off the ice as well.
"I like to consider him a friend. Hopefully he says the same. But I know he's a great player and a great guy off the ice."
Maybe it's Sutter, so cautious with his words, who distills the essence of Mike Richards.
"Well, he's a winner," the Kings' coach said. "Pretty much done it his whole life, first and foremost. He's a guy that relates well with everybody. He's not a guy that's off on his own. He spends a lot of time with those young guys."
And then there is Richards himself. When told of the praise others have heaped on him, there is a kind of "aw, shucks" reaction.
What do you say about that? How does one become a "winner"? Is it simply part of the DNA? How does someone go about assessing that quality in themselves?
"I'm not really sure, to be honest, how to answer that one," he offered with a smile. "I think just the excitement around big games, you always get excited to play in them. And that's all I can really say. I'm not really sure what to say."
And without a doubt, being deep in the playoffs is something that triggers a special chemical reaction in some players.
"It's why everybody plays," Richards said. "It's the excitement around it. Just walking into the buildings, you just feel the energy and that just goes with obviously playoff hockey. But it's just exciting to play, and everyone's ready for it and it's the little battles inside, the battles that we try to win.
"Obviously, the prize at the end is something to shoot for, so there's always a goal. But it's something that doesn't matter if you've won it a lot or won it once or haven't won it at all, it's always that thing that you're shooting for and that's why everyone plays the game.
"You don't grow up just thinking about playing in an NHL game, you grow up thinking about winning the Stanley Cup."
As for his evolution, his role as a leader remains constant, even if his role as a player is different. That, too, is a challenge to be met.
"You take it upon yourself to lead in different areas and whether it's stand up and say something or lead on the ice, there's always different things that need to be done in different scenarios," Richards said.
"I don't think it's difficult. It's an adjustment when you're playing different scenarios. But I think you can take that upon yourself to put even more importance in leading, and people look up to you.
"If you're not the guy every night, it's still important to maintain that leadership and show everybody you're here to do whatever it takes to win."