Mike Richards could be an option for Leafs’ struggling fourth line

Photo Credit: Charles Leclaire/USA TODAY SPORTS

Pondering whether or not Mike Richards makes sense for the Leafs almost seems like an annual event, but I have no problem with bringing it up yet again. 

With the trade deadline just over a week away, understandably there hasn’t much talk about Toronto doing anything substantial. But when it comes to the bottom of the lineup, plenty of debate has come up over the fourth line in particular, and more specifically the play of Ben Smith. 

As recently as this morning, Chris Johnston of Sportsnet talked about how Brian Boyle could be a target as a substantial upgrade in this regard, something we’ve covered here as well. But maybe there’s a cheaper, easier route to go for the Leafs, a team that’s likely cautious of its relatively early success and not keen to sell off any futures at this point. 

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Mike Richards has yet to play an NHL game this season, but according to reports he’s been working out and is available, should a team come knocking. You’ll remember he joined the Capitals late last season, so it looks as though he’s probably seeking a repeat of that situation.

Now, the fact that Richards is essentially looking to be a 32-year-old walk-on at this point should rightfully send up some caution flags. He’s nowhere near capable of performing the way he has in the past, and at this point in his career likely represents a fringe NHLer just trying to make a contribution. But for a team like the Leafs, that might be all that’s really needed. Smith has been sub-replacement-level and Freddie The Goat clearly isn’t ready for the NHL either, so if Richards can bring with him 10 decent minutes a night, he’s at least a step in the right direction.

And there’s basically no risk to the team here whatsoever. Richards can walk in at a minimal salary, and Toronto avoids unloading assets like picks or prospects, no matter how limited in upside.  

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If we look back to Richards’ recent stint with the Capitals for their stretch run last season, his play was perfectly reasonable as a depth player. He chipped in 12-minutes per night over a 39-game stretch, and while he only contributed a handful of points, his underlying numbers were fine as he clipped along at 51% score-adjusted Corsi, and just a half-percentage point in the negative relative to when he wasn’t on the ice. At the very least he was far stronger than Smith, who’s been caved in at even strength all season to the tune of 41.8% CF and has had the same offensive struggles. 

On top of all this, while I don’t put much stock into faceoff abilities, it’s another area where Richards has shown to be adequate. It’s been seen as Smith’s strength, with a 51.9 win-percentage over his 235 NHL games, but Richards has a career mark of 50.2%. 

Basically what this comes down to is whether the Leafs feel their fourth line is as much of a sore spot as the rest of us do. And considering the way the trade chatter has sounded to this point, there probably are some hints that they feel an upgrade of some kind is needed. 

With the way the standings are right now, it sounds like the trade market isn’t going to be too active because so many teams believe they’re still in a playoff hunt. For that reason, it’ll likely be difficult to pry a guy like Brian Boyle from the Lightning for less than a second-round pick at minimum. If that continues to be the case, it’s doubtful the Leafs go down that expensive road, and Richards could be a cheaper, no-risk option that can still give them at least a marginal boost deep in the lineup. 

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  • STAN

    Two points.

    First, Frederick Gauthier is clearly ready for the NHL, especially as a fourth line centre playing 10 minutes per night. He was a clear upgrade over Smith, but Babcock is loyal and stubborn, so Smith got his old job back.

    Second, Mike Richards doesn’t have the foot speed to keep up with ANY of the current or demoted Leafs, including Gauthier. He’s always been a sluggish skater, but made up for it with above average hockey sense.

    With Leivo (hopefully) on the team to stay, Soshnikov, Martin and Gauthier would be my choice for fourth line honours.

    Forget Richards.

    • Stan Smith

      The fact that Gauthier isn’t ready for the NHL is a clear as mud, as my buddy STAN has stated. You can say it or print it as much as you want, but it does not make it true. Gauthier, and the 4th line in general played significantly better with Gauthier at centre than they have since Smith came back from the injury. As I have stated before, there has to be some ulterior reason why the Leafs feel the need to play Smith over Gauthier.

      As for Richards, Boyle, or anyone else you want to pontificate being brought in to temporarily shore up the 4th line centre’s job, part of the long term plan is to figure out who can, and cannot do certain jobs on the team, before figuring out where to add and subtract. That is where the Leafs are at right now. They may make the playoffs, they may not. IT DOES NOT MATTER!. Bringing in anyone that will stall the development of the team is the wrong thing to do and to even waste time discussing.

    • ScottWC

      I have no hope that The Goat will ever be a productive Maple Leaf. He simply isn’t good enough.

      His skating has come a long way but he’s still relatively slow and also has below average puck skills and isn’t great at FOs. That’s a bad combination for the prototypical Babcock 4th line centre.

    • Harte of a Lion

      Stan, Babs said Gauthier needs more development time and playing 10 minutes a night in the NHL will not help in that regard. He likes Freddy and sees a future for the kid with this team so since the overall theme for the team moving forward is patience, the Goat’s time will come. Most players his size take longer to develop to their potential and his 6’5 isn’t going anywhere. When you watch him with the Marlies, he has dominant shifts every period. He needs to learn that every shift needs to be dominant.
      As far as Richards, he has had substance abuse issues as well as criminal problems from smuggling oxy. He was also considered a problem child in Philly, partying and breaking curfew causing his departure to L.A.
      Many players have bumps in their careers and substance abuse, including both drugs and alcoholism is far more prevalent in pro sports than the leagues would ever admit however I hope he has turned his life around. It’s one thing for him to play a limited role on a veteran team like the Capitals where his influence would be minimal. The question everyone should ask is do we want him to be in a position where he might be a negative influence on the young players?
      Does he have the talent to be an upgrade for the Leafs at 4C? Yes. Is the improvement worth the risk? I do not know the answer however I am positive that if Shanahan felt he was a fit, he would already be signed.

  • Jefflechef

    Richard’s documented drug use would make him persona non grata on the Leafs. Wonder why they signed Matt Martin? As a role model/big brother for the young players so they wouldn’t end up being the future Brad Richards/Theo Fleury/Buffalo Sabre.