The Kings put Richards on waivers Monday when they returned from the all-star break, finally acknowledging the veteran centre's declining play.
Richards has been a key part of the Kings' two Stanley Cup championship teams in the past three seasons, playing a responsible two-way role and providing leadership. But his plummeting offensive production hasn't matched his exorbitant contract since shortly after he arrived in Los Angeles, which acquired him from Philadelphia in 2011.
The Kings stuck by Richards, hoping he would reclaim his formidable offensive game. But when Los Angeles returned from the break in ninth place in the Western Conference standings, general manager Dean Lombardi made the move.
"I felt he deserved that chance for all that he had done for us," Lombardi said during practice at their training complex. "I don't think there's any question we don't win that first Cup without what he did for this team, and obviously you don't win the second one. But you've still got to be at a certain level here that has to get done."
Richards, who turns 30 next month, has only five goals and 10 assists in 47 games with Los Angeles this season. He has a minus-7 rating and has won only 48 per cent of his faceoffs while playing on a depth line with the Kings — not the contributions expected of a player with a 12-year, $69 million contract that has a $5.75 million annual salary cap hit for the next six seasons.
If Richards clears waivers and the Kings don't work out a trade, he could be headed to their AHL affiliate in Manchester if he accepts the assignment. Lombardi sees "no reason why he can't come back ... and be what he usually is in the playoffs" if his game improves in the minors.
The Kings clearly are in need of a spark after losing four straight and seven of eight heading into the break, falling out of the playoff picture. Los Angeles recalled rookie Nick Shore to take Richards' roster spot.
"We understand it's a business, but in here, you're a family," Kings captain Dustin Brown said. "So that's why it's really hard to see (Richards) go on waivers. ... As a group of guys who have won together, it's even harder."
Lombardi and Los Angeles coach Darryl Sutter have ardently defended Richards in recent years, even declining the chance to do a money-saving buyout of his contract last summer.
Lombardi, who values continuity and player loyalty in a league that has largely lost touch with the concepts, finally made the move long anticipated by Kings fans after trying to trade Richards in recent weeks.
"It's been a big part of the success of this team," Lombardi said. "If you're going to expect loyalty from certain players, at times you have to show loyalty to them. The issue becomes, where's that line? I'm never going to lose my belief in those values being critical, but as we see in the cap era, the cap is actually designed ... to eliminate those type of emotions. Unfortunately, I still believe they're a critical part of a good team."
Richards scored 89 goals over three seasons with the Flyers from 2007-10, and the club made him its captain and signed him to that mammoth extension in December 2007.
But the Kings gave up Wayne Simmonds and Brayden Schenn when Philadelphia general manager Paul Holmgren decided to break up his core with separate trades of Richards and goal-scorer Jeff Carter, who ended up being reunited with Richards in Los Angeles several months later.
Richards' contract still runs through 2020. His scoring production has dropped every year since 2010, down to just 11 goals last season.
The Kenora, Ont., native became the first hockey player to win Olympic gold, world-junior gold, the Memorial Cup and Stanley Cup. He was part of the 2010 Canadian Olympic team that won gold in Vancouver.
In 704 career NHL games, Richards has 133 goals and 216 assists. His career high in points was 80, back in 2008-09 with the Flyers.
— With files from The Canadian Press.