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Fit for a King

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Mike Richards is exactly what the Winnipeg Jets need.

If he hits the market, the Jets will have as strong an opportunity to sign him as any team in the NHL. It’ll be a deal they’ll have to get done.

Richards is a driver, not a follower. He’s a competitor of a different stripe and there are only a handful of players in the NHL with the kind of will he brings to the game.

Put it this way: The Jets have a list of players that opponents look at and say, "we can push him and him and him out of the game." It’s a big factor in the games they lose.

Richards doesn’t get pushed out of games. He does the pushing. He’s smart, he’s a little dirty and he’s been around. He’s no longer a top-six player, but a third-line centre who can draw some growl from a team’s engine.

The Jets currently have baby teeth. Richards has fangs. If the Los Angeles Kings elect to buy out the remainder of Richards’ contract, the Jets need to be in the bidding. Three years at $4 million per year. Or more. The market for free-agent centres is thin this summer. But unlike lots of coveted free agents, Richards will consider Winnipeg. His roots, past and future, are here. The 29-year-old is from Kenora, Ont., with a summer home on the lake and his girlfriend is a Winnipeg-born doctor. There are lots of reasons for Richards to place Winnipeg high on his list of potential destinations.

Kings GM Dean Lombardi must weigh the worth of Richards as a player in the bigger picture of the Kings chasing future Stanley Cups against the centreman’s hefty contract. There’s been lots of talk regarding a possible buyout of Richards’ contract, which would cost the Kings just north of $19 million.

The Jets used 35-year-old Olli Jokinen as their third-line centre last season at a rate of $4.5 million and he collected 18 goals and 25 assists. Jokinen appears to have some good hockey left in him. He's scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1. 

"We haven’t heard a thing from the Jets," said Jokinen’s agent, Ian Pulver. "I understood we would talk. But it hasn’t transpired. We’ll see where it goes. I don’t know Winnipeg’s plans."

Richards is a player with a winning pedigree that already includes an Olympic gold medal and a Stanley Cup. It’s likely he and the Kings will add a second Cup any day now.

One NHL GM described Richards like this on Tuesday: "He still has that predator mentality. Maybe he can’t cover 200 feet like he once could, but he’s still a very good third-line centre. He can still nullify good players. He can kill penalties and win draws. He adds strength and depth down the middle. At the right price, Richards is still a good piece. L.A. has a decision to make. I know the coaching staff won’t be happy to see him leave if that’s the way they decide to go."

The price is really the only reason this conversation is taking place. Richards has six years left on his contract with a cash value of $29 million remaining and an annual cap hit of $5.75 million.

For a player who appears to be slowing down and has spent most of the post-season anchoring the Kings’ fourth line, that’s a lot of money. Over 82 games this past season, he had 11 goals and 30 assists.

Can the Kings’ chemistry and stability down the middle of the ice survive the loss of Richards? Or is it better to overpay for a player who, despite having lost a step, is still a valuable part of a winning combination? That’s the decision Lombardi faces.

For the Jets, it’s a no-brainer. Richards would set a standard of competition in the Jets dressing room and on the ice. It’ll be easy from the perspective of the coaching staff and management to see who matches up and who doesn’t.

The Jets need a player willing to grab the rest of the team by the throat.Richards has the credibility and the willingness to execute such an action.

Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff should be drooling and hoping. So should you.

Twitter: @garylawless

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About Gary Lawless

Gary Lawless is the Free Press sports columnist and co-host of the Hustler and Lawless show on TSN 1290 Winnipeg and
Lawless began covering sports as a rookie reporter at The Chronicle-Journal in Thunder Bay after graduating from journalism school at Durham College in Ontario.
After a Grey Cup winning stint with the Toronto Argonauts in the communications department, Lawless returned to Thunder Bay as sports editor.
In 1999 he joined the Free Press and after working on the night sports desk moved back into the field where he covered pro hockey, baseball and football beats prior to being named columnist.


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