EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — When Mike Richards learned Philadelphia had traded him to the Los Angeles Kings last month, the Flyers captain was confused and upset about leaving his adopted home.
After Richards strolled along the beach on his first day on the West Coast, a whole lot of that bitterness vanished with the sunset.
"You start thinking, ‘This is not a bad place to be, and not a bad place to restart a career," Richards said Wednesday in the Kings’ locker-room. "I always used to love coming to L.A. to play. There’s just a buzz in the arena, almost like it is in New York. I can’t wait to feel it from the other side."
One month after the deal, the star centre is definitely warming up to Los Angeles. Richards already has worked out with several Kings, who appear to be a burgeoning powerhouse after general manager Dean Lombardi’s off-season moves for Richards and Simon Gagne.
Yet Richards still doesn’t understand why he had to change coasts. He doesn’t think it has anything to do with his leadership, even after a story recently appeared in a Philadelphia paper suggesting he had partied too much for coach Peter Laviolette’s taste.
"I’m not exactly sure why I was traded," Richards said. "There’s a lot of stuff written in Philly, but it was a big shock to me. … Philadelphia tends to maybe blow things up a little more than they are."
Richards was dismayed to learn that the Philadelphia Daily News wrote about "Dry Island," the name of a pledge in which Laviolette reportedly asked his players to stop drinking for a month. The report claimed Richards and Jeff Carter repeatedly declined to take part in the pledge over the past two years — and Carter was traded on the same day as Richards.
"That started out as a friendly, fun thing that you can joke about in the dressing room, just something to bring the team together," Richards said. "I was pretty mad at first. Usually when you have a dressing room, what happens in the dressing room stays in the dressing room. You need that camaraderie to do your best on the ice. I was pretty mad it got out."
Lombardi had no worries about Richards’ lifestyle or character, trading promising youngsters Wayne Simmonds and Brayden Schenn for a 26-year-old forward signed for the next nine years. Richards and all-star centre Anze Kopitar are expected to form the best one-two punch down the middle in Los Angeles since Wayne Gretzky and Bernie Nicholls manned the pivots many years ago.
When Lombardi heard Richards talking about his disappointment at leaving Philadelphia, the Kings GM was pleased.
"If I get a guy who wants to be traded, that’s usually not good," Lombardi said. "I want a guy who has worn that jersey with his heart on his sleeve. My experience is that when a guy is hurt that he’s been traded, it’s a tough first call, but that guy will eventually have that same feeling for your organization."
Richards doesn’t yet know whether he’ll re-team with Gagne, his linemate in Philadelphia for three seasons — including the Flyers’ run to the Stanley Cup finals in 2009. He’s confident he’ll find a consistent role under Kings coach Terry Murray and assistant coach John Stevens, who both coached Richards and Gagne in Philadelphia.
With his workmanlike, well-rounded game, Richards seems to be a perfect fit for the Kings and their steady, unflashy approach to hockey. Lombardi believes Richards will provide smarts and maturity to a roster that has finally established itself as a contender, but hasn’t made a deep playoff run together.
After eight straight seasons out of the playoffs, the Kings are coming off back-to-back first-round appearances. They fell to the Sharks last spring after losing Kopitar to torn ligaments in his right ankle shortly before the post-season.
Lombardi revealed Kopitar is "real close" to getting back on his skates for workouts, putting far ahead of schedule in his recovery. Kopitar is expected to be ready for training camp in September.
Lombardi still is working on a long-term contract extension for defenceman Drew Doughty, but remains confident he’ll re-sign his young star before the Kings assemble for a highly anticipated season.
"I’ve talked to guys on other teams, and they’re excited about our team when they don’t even play for us," Los Angeles centre Jarret Stoll said. "They say to me, ‘Wow, you guys look good.’ And we do, on paper. I think it will be there on the ice, too."