Make no mistake, even though he already made his first return to Philadelphia last year and knows what it’s like now and got his video board tribute and standing ovation from the fans, playing in the building that he called home for ten seasons as a visitor is still going to be weird for Simon Gagne. But for former Flyers captain Mike Richards, who was shockingly dealt away in the summer to the Kings, you can bet it’s going to be much weirder and you can bet he’s had this day circled on his calendar ever since June 23rd when the trade happened. Gagne can try and help him prepare for it and tell him what it’s like, but no matter what, it’s going to be a very weird feeling for Richards when he steps onto the ice at the Wells Fargo Center for the first time as a visitor, the place he called home for the last six years, and although it’s very rare in today’s NHL to see any player spend his whole career with one team, that’s what Richards had planned on doing in Philadelphia, the place he had signed a contract to be in for the rest of his career, but with nine years remaining on the monster twelve-year contract extension he signed back in 2007 with the Flyers, Richards finds himself playing the majority of his contract out in Los Angeles; not the way he envisioned things happening.
Richards didn’t have a good relationship with the Philadelphia media during his time there, and after being traded, stories leaked out that he and former Flyers teammate Jeff Carter had been doing too much partying, too much drinking, didn’t get along with Peter Laviolette, and that the Flyers’ dressing room was divided. Richards was very upset to be leaving Philadelphia, the place he loved and place he signed to be in and was told he would spend his career there, but perhaps even more, Richards was infuriated by these accusations that he claims got blown way out of proportion and furious that he was going to be remembered in Philadelphia for the off-ice garbage more than his heroics on the ice for the organization. Richards loved his time in Philadelphia, but has adjusted very well to Los Angeles and continues to become more comfortable as a King as the fresh start has been good for him as he no longer has to face the wrath of the Philadelphia media, who are tough enough to deal with when you don’t have a rocky relationship with them, in a place where he no longer carries the pressure of being a captain and he can just worry about playing hockey, on a team that he says is much more of one big group and fun and tight-knit than it was in Philly and in a market much more relaxed, forgiving, and less hostile than Philadelphia, where everyone in LA is overjoyed to have him, and Richards says he completely sees himself as a King now and has accepted the trade and has moved on from Philadelphia, although he still has a lot of close friends on the Flyers that he went and saw earlier in the week but that’s completely normal for players to keep friends on former teams, but despite the fact that Richards says he’s moved on, there’s no doubt that the way things ended in Philly left a sour taste in his mouth, and although he’s likely going to get a very warm reception and a video tribute, expect a very motivated Mike Richards on the ice, looking to prove to his former team that they made a mistake, and that’s a scary thought for the Flyers. It’s not Simon Gagne’s first trip back to Philadelphia, but this is a guy who last summer the Flyers saw as a guy who couldn’t stay healthy and wanted to get rid of his salary and traded him to the Tampa Bay Lightning for almost nothing, despite all he had done over so many years for the Flyers, so although he understands it’s a business and claims he has no hard feelings towards Philadelphia, maybe he’ll have a chip on his shoulder tomorrow night too. How great would it be to see the two former Flyers walk into Philly and play great games and leave with 2 points for the Kings? You can bet they’d feel pretty good about that. Former Flyers first-round pick Justin Williams also will play in his old building, although his time in Philadelphia ended many years ago and was much shorter and not nearly as spectacular as Richards and Gagne’s time in Philly was.
Also not to be overlooked, former fan favourite in LA Wayne Simmonds plays his former team for the first time. As a Kings fan who’s watched this kid work his way up in the last three years and battle for his team so hard and play as hard and well for us like he did, it was tough to see Simmonds go. Like most Kings fans, Simmonds was a favourite of mine, and I was looking forward to the future in LA that was going to include him. I wish Simmonds the best of luck in his future in the NHL with the Flyers and wherever his career takes him, and who knows, maybe he’ll even find himself back in a Kings jersey one day. Nevertheless, it was still an awesome trade. Players like Mike Richards don’t grow on trees, and they’re almost never available, so you have to jump on those opportunities with they arise, and you’re not going to get a guy like him for free. You need to give to get, and that’s what the Kings did, but they certainly ended up with the better player, although Brayden Schenn is the wild card since no one knows how the highly-touted prospect will end up, and he currently plays for the Adirondack Phantoms, the AHL affiliate of the Flyers, but even at his peak it’s hard to see him being what Mike Richards is, although I do think Schenn will be a very good player. Heck, even former Flyers coaches Terry Murray and John Stevens are heading back to their old building, as are former Flyers scout Dean Lombardi, now the Kings’ president and general manager, and Ron Hextall, former Flyers goalie, now the Kings’ assistant GM. Although he hasn’t yet appeared in a game for the Kings, although he appears close to ready, Colin Fraser was also a Flyers draft pick. So if you’re wondering why some people call Los Angeles “Philly West,” that’s why… Michal Handzus, who spend the last four years with the Kings before signing with the Sharks this past summer, was also a former Flyer. Go figure. I think Dean Lombardi was impressed with the way the Flyers ran things when he was over there, and that’s clearly the model he’s trying to build in LA.
Richards, Gagne, and the rest of the Kings have a tough test to deal with, however. The overhauled Flyers are off to a strong 3-0-0 start to their season and are playing very good hockey right now. I didn’t like the Flyers’ off-season for them, but there’s no denying that this is still a very good, very dangerous hockey team. Up front, Claude Giroux has been amazing in this young season, James van Riemsdyk is a very talented young goal scorer, Wayne Simmonds and Jakub Voracek have looked pretty good in Philly so far, Jaromir Jagr is back, and although he’s not exactly in his prime, he looks pretty good so far, Daniel Briere has been pretty quiet so far this season but don’t expect that to last long, Scott Hartnell is a solid power forward, and a healthy Chris Pronger along with Kimmo Timonen, Andrej Meszaros, Matt Carle and Braydon Coburn make for a formidable blue line that can shut you down, play nasty, and can generate offense. Of course, the Flyers now have Ilya Bryzgalov between the pipes, and not having a goaltender has been what’s kept the Flyers from winning it all in the past, but now with a team this talented with an elite goalie behind them, that’s pretty scary. The Kings have struggled offensively, and they’re definitely in tough to get the offense going tomorrow night. They’ll once again need to rely on their strong defensive play and penalty kill and goaltending from Jonathan Quick, who will be back in goal after a strong performance in New Jersey, and hope for the best offensively. It would be nice if they could get the power play going against an aggressive, physical Flyers team that takes its share of penalties, so it will be up to the Kings to make them pay with the man-advantage. And as good as the Kings’ penalty kill is, play disciplined, the Kings can’t let the Flyers get them off their game, because with a team as offensively explosive as Philly, the Kings shouldn’t take their chances by taking dumb penalties, despite how strong the penalty kill is.
The Kings may face very well their toughest test yet of the young season so far tonight in the Flyers, but will the Kings end their mini two-game winless streak? Will this be the night that the Kings finally get the offense going? Will Mike Richards and Simon Gagne and the rest of the former Flyers burn their old team? Let’s hope the answer to all three of those questions is yes.
Side note: This will be the only meeting between these two teams this season. The Kings and Flyers played each other twice last season and split the two games. The first game, on December 30th, 2010, was at Staples Center and was a 7-4 Flyers win, with Mike Richards picking up 4 points on the night, with 2 goals and 2 assists. I’m sure he’ll be looking for similar success in Philadelphia tonight. Jonathan Bernier started that game, but Jonathan Quick came in in relief after the sixth goal. The Kings and Flyers also met in Philadelphia on February 17th, 2011, and it resulted in the exact opposite of the game at Staples Center, a low-scoring, tight-checking affair, with the Kings coming out on top 1-0 in regulation on the strength of a Drew Doughty goal and a Jonathan Quick shutout, who will be looking for the type of performance he had in Philly last year tonight. The Kings will hope to leave Philadelphia with the same winning feeling that they left this city with last season.