The Los Angeles Kings terminated Mike Richards' contract Monday, claiming the underachieving forward committed a "material breach" of its terms.
The move is a surprising tactic in the Kings' prolonged attempt to get out from under the last five seasons of the 12-year, US$69 million deal signed by Richards with Philadelphia in 2008.
The Kings acquired Richards in 2011, and he played a key supporting role on their two Stanley Cup champion teams. But Richards' scoring production has declined sharply during his tenure in Los Angeles, culminating in just 16 points from 53 games last season.
Several published reports say Richards is under investigation by both the RCMP and Canadian border services following an incident at the Canadian border.
The Kings refused to detail their grounds for terminating Richards' deal, which carries an annual salary cap hit of $5.75 million through 2020. The NHL's collective bargaining agreement with the players contains nebulous language allowing termination if a player should "fail, refuse, or neglect to obey the club's rules governing training and conduct."
In a brief statement, the Kings said Richards committed "a material breach of the requirements of his Standard Player's Contract. We are not prepared to provide any more detail or to discuss the underlying grounds for the contract termination at this time."
Los Angeles general manager Dean Lombardi has criticized Richards' fitness at times while the forward struggled for much of his four seasons with the Kings, culminating in a trip to the minors last season after no team claimed him off waivers.
Lombardi's decision to terminate Richards' contract could be contested by the NHL Players' Association, and an arbitrator eventually could determine what happens.
Los Angeles placed Richards on waivers over the weekend for the second time this year. The club demoted Richards to the AHL last season, recalling him late in the regular season before missing the playoffs as the defending Stanley Cup champions.
After his latest trip to waivers, Richards was expected to be bought out by the Kings, lessening his cap hit by spreading it out through 2025.
Instead, the Kings are attempting to declare themselves free of all obligations to Richards by breach of contract. Los Angeles still would be subject to a salary cap penalty for dropping Richards, but it would be much less onerous.
The NHL Players' Association also kept its public comments brief and neutral.
"We are in the process of reviewing the facts and circumstances of this matter, and will discuss the situation with the player in order to determine the appropriate course of action," spokesman Jonathan Weatherdon said.
The Kings are desperate for salary cap room with several players from their championship teams signed to space-eating, long-term contracts. Los Angeles' bind is exacerbated by the ongoing 76-game suspension of defenceman Slava Voynov after his arrest on domestic violence charges.
The Kings are hoping to re-sign unrestricted free agent defenceman Andrej Sekera, and Conn Smythe Trophy-winning forward Justin Williams also is a free agent.
Richards' prolonged departure is the latest off-ice saga for the Kings, who struggled without Voynov in their lineup.
Veteran centre Jarret Stoll then was arrested in Las Vegas and charged with felony drug possession shortly after the season ended. Stoll, an unrestricted free agent who wasn't expected to return to Los Angeles even before his arrest, struck a deal with prosecutors and avoided jail time by pleading guilty to two misdemeanour charges.