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.
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.
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.