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How the Capitals landed Mike Richards, and why

Mike Richards, the Capitals’ new center, speaks during a news conference Friday in New York before playing the Islanders. (Frank Franklin II/AP)
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NEW YORK – When the Washington Capitals played at the Toronto Maple Leafs in late November, Coach Barry Trotz and General Manager Brian MacLellan took the opportunity to meet with the player they’d been thinking about since summertime. Mike Richards flew in, and for more than hour, the trio had what amounted to an informal interview.

Trotz and MacLellan had questions, about where Richards was in his playing career, what he wanted to accomplish and his expectations. Richards had been humbled, temporarily pushed out of the game after he had been charged with possessing a controlled substance while entering Canada.

In that meeting, Richards listened, too, as Trotz and MacLellan outlined what role they envisioned him having with the Capitals. After, Richards found himself watching the team on television more, catching a couple games a week as talks between his agent and Washington heated up.

On Wednesday, the Capitals agreed to terms with Richards on a one-year, pro-rated $1 million deal. From a financial standpoint, it’s a low-risk signing for a player that has won two Stanley Cups and scored more than 40 points two seasons ago.

But for the team that has the most points (63) in the league, MacLellan and Trotz had to consider how the addition of Richards and his recent off-ice history would impact a tight-knit locker room.

“There’s no assurances in anything, in life,” Trotz said. “The only assurances were that he was going to do his best to help us win the Stanley Cup, and that’s why we wanted to get him.”

MacLellan said the Capitals identified Richards as someone they’d be interested in near the end of the summer, but his situation with the Los Angeles Kings was complicated. Richards was charged by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police with possession of a controlled substance after an incident at the Canada/U.S. border in June, when Richards allegedly tried to import OxyContin pills at the Emerson, Manitoba port of entry.

Richards was arrested and released on June 17, and he was charged in relation to the incident in late August. The Kings terminated his contract on June 29, and the players’ union filed a grievance on his behalf.

On Oct. 9, the Kings and NHL Players’ Association reached a settlement in which Richards would receive about $10.5 million of the $22 million remaining on his contract. Before that was settled, Trotz found himself about 30 miles away from Kenora, Ontario, tempted to go ahead and meet with Richards then if only the situation weren’t so “gray.”

That Richards no longer belonged to an NHL team at just 30 years old hadn’t started to weigh on him. That came later. At first, he just tried to relax and take the break as a positive. But Richards missed it, and he said what he learned from the experience is what he had taken for granted.

“It’s a privilege to play in the NHL and not everyone gets to do it,” Richards said. “It’s a privilege to play hockey at the highest level. It’s not fun being 30 years old, sitting on the couch and not having much to do.”

That motivated Richards to get ice time in any way possible. A player with 482 points in 710 games joined a men’s league, which he termed “interesting.” He started working out with his old Canadian junior team. As other teams pursued him and monitored his pending legal situation – Richards has a court hearing on Jan. 28 – he never doubted that he’d play again.

The Capitals had their lawyer talk to his lawyer. MacLellan said immigration lawyers were involved. In the end, Washington was comfortable with where things stood legally, the understanding that Richards is expected to plead not guilty and MacLellan believing there will be “a favorable outcome from him in his case.”

It’s possible the case could drag on and not be resolved until after the season anyway, when Richards would be an unrestricted free agent again. With the legal due diligence done, the Capitals then turned to forward Justin Williams, a former teammate of Richards’s in Los Angeles.

“Mike’s ego obviously took a hit the last few years,” Williams said. “He’s hoping to write a good script to this. I know he can be a very impactful player, and I want him to be. It looks like he’s going to get a chance to be. … I just assured [MacLellan] that he’s a heckuva guy and can be a heckuva player, too.”

Williams also told Richards that he thought he’d be “an idiot” not to join the Capitals if they offered him something. Trotz said he was honest with Richards throughout the process, planning to start him as the team’s fourth-line center with an opportunity to move up in the lineup.

With Richards having not played all season, the Capitals don’t have a timeline for when he’ll be ready to be in the lineup, a conditioning stint with the American Hockey League a possibility. On the ice, Washington is hopeful Richards can be the productive two-way checking-line center he once was. What happens off it is still unclear.

“I’m just going to be myself,” Richards said. “That’s all I know how to do. That’s all I’m going to be. I’m not going to try to change anything. I’m not going to try to change myself. I am who I am, and I’ve had success being that way.”