- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 15, 2008

If Tomas Fleischmann didn’t see Mike Richards as he came into the offensive zone Sunday afternoon, he certainly felt him: Richards leveled the Washington Capitals forward with an open-ice hit.

Whether it is handling the rough stuff — like challenging Alex Ovechkin to a fight during a preseason game last year — or making the skillful play — like his perfect cross-crease pass on the power play Friday night — there is little the Philadelphia Flyers center cannot do.

“He was the type of guy when we were down 2-1 … who wanted to take us on his back,” said Caps defenseman Steve Eminger, who played with Richards for Kitchener in the Ontario Hockey League. “He was that guy who would throw a big check or fight or score a big goal for you. He’s not just an offensive guy. He’s going to do whatever it takes to win, and he wants to be that go-to guy.”

Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren deserves plenty of credit for the trades and signings he made last season and this summer to help engineer the Flyers’ league-best turnaround, but predecessor Bobby Clarke is worthy of kudos for a move he made nearly five years ago.

Clarke chose Richards with the 24th pick in the 2003 draft, and Richards’ breakout season this year was a big factor in the Flyers’ 39-point improvement over last season.

The 5-foot-11, 195-pound Richards had 28 goals and a team-high 75 points — a significant bump from the 21 goals and 66 points he had in his first two NHL seasons combined.

For his efforts, a collection of the team’s media picked him as the Flyers’ MVP and awarded him a trophy that bears his former general manager’s legendary name.

“Last year, with the year we had, we didn’t really know where these young guys would go,” coach John Stevens said. “But [Richards] really has become the player in the NHL that he was prior to coming to the NHL. He’s doing all the things he did at the junior level, the world junior level and the things he did for us at the American [Hockey] League level.”

Richards compiled quite a resume before joining the Flyers. He won a Memorial Cup with Eminger for the Rangers in 2003, and he captained Team Canada to a gold medal at the 2005 IIHF World Junior Championship.

A few months after Kitchener’s season was over, he made his AHL debut during the Calder Cup playoffs — and proceeded to pile up 15 points in 14 games while helping the Philadelphia Phantoms to the title.

Along the way, he became one of the top prospects in hockey, a two-way forward with plenty of grit and leadership qualities. There was some question about his offensive potential at the game’s top level. He was projected to be a complementary scorer, while Jeff Carter, who the Flyers picked at No. 11 in 2003, would be the go-to guy.

This season might have proved that projection wrong. Carter scored 29 goals, but Richards led the team in points and became a significant contributor on the power play. Toss in Danny Briere and the Flyers have three guys who could center a team’s top line.

“He has the characteristics to be a great player — the leadership, the work ethic and the attitude,” Carter said. “Maybe the offensive numbers are higher than expected, but he’s just had a great year.”

Added Stevens: “I think there was some uncertainty about whether he could be that type of offensive player at the NHL level, but we made the decision to put him on the power play and on the point. We wanted him to check the other team’s top players but still allowed him to score, and he’s really thrived in that role.”

Richards’ total value is tough to quantify. There are his points, his hits and, when necessary, the occasional fight. But he is also one of the team’s top penalty killers.

And then there is the leadership. Richards was lauded on draft day as a future captain, and everything he has done to this point — whether it was his work with Team Canada, the Phantoms or becoming an assistant captain for the Flyers at such a young age — suggests he will be wearing the “C” for Philadelphia in short order.

In December, Richards ensured he will do so for a long time in the City of Brotherly Love. Before Ovechkin signed a monster 13-year, $124 million contract with the Capitals, Richards inked a 12-year, $69 million pact.

While all of Holmgren’s moves last season and over the summer helped spur Philadelphia’s turnaround, locking up Richards might be remembered as the best move he made for the long-term health of the franchise.

“I like playing here and I like the organization,” Richards said. “They are committed to winning, and I just wanted to be here for it.”

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