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Dr. Strangeline: How I Learned To Stop Worrying & Love The Grit (Sort Of)

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As with most coaches, Todd Richards is the focus of a wide spectrum of opinions. Here's my personal journey in assessing the Blue Jackets' bench boss.

As I watched the Minnesota Wild put the finishing touches on the opening round disposal of the St. Louis Blues in Game 6, I couldn't help noticing the frequent camera switches to close-ups of Ken Hitchcock.  With John Tortorella no longer in the NHL ranks, and Patrick Roy not in the playoffs, Hitchcock seemed the prime candidate to provide a camera-worthy moment, particularly since conventional wisdom has him departing the Missouri landscape after yet another early playoff exit.

Of course, we all remember Hitchcock's time with the Blue Jackets -- being the only other coach to take the team to the playoffs.  However, "Hitch Hockey" burned out in Columbus -- as it seems to everywhere it visits.  That led me to consider the spectrum of coaches, and why some burn out meteorically -- even after having success (i.e. Hitchcock, Tortorella), while others have enormous staying power, even when things don't go well  Barry Trotz is the recent poster child in this category, despite finally moving on to Washington.

That led me back to Todd Richards, and my own views of his spot on that spectrum.  As those who read this space regularly realize, I've been fairly vocal in my critiques of Richards, so I thought it was time to step back and do as objective an assessment as possible.  Given the fact that he now sits at the pinnacle of Columbus coaches in wins, and will be coaching the United States team in the World Championships, perhaps the effort is overdue.

First, the basics.  Richards is 48, a native of Crystal, Minnesota, and played four years as a blue-liner for the University of Minnesota. He was named to the All-Tournament team for the Frozen Four in 1989.   He was a second round pick of the Montreal Canadiens in 1985, and after graduation, spent one season with the Canadien's AHL club before being traded to Hartford.  Richards saw his only NHL ice time with the Whalers, earning 3 assists in eight regular season games, and three assists in eleven playoff contests. Richards did bring some offense to the blue line, topping the 50-point line in two of three seasons for Springfield, gaining 61 points for Las Vegas and 73 points for Orlando in the 1995-96 IHL season.  He also had 13 points in 23 playoff games that year.

After retiring as a player in 2002, Richards served as an assistant with the Milwaukee Admirals for four years, which included a Calder Cup win, then earned his first head coaching slot  with Wilkes-Barre.  After two seasons there, he accepted an assistant slot with the San Jose Sharks for the 08-09 season, following which he was named the head coach of the Minnesota Wild, succeeding Jacques Lemaire.  Tasked to replace the stodgy, grinding style of Lemaire teams with a more offensively oriented system, Richards received little help  -- or patience from the front office. Saddled with players ill-suited to a more up-tempo system, Richards was unable to make the requested transformation.  Although his teams were over .500 each season, the Wild missed the playoffs in the 2009-10 and 10-11 campaigns, which signaled the end of the Richards era in Minnesota.   He then joined the Blue Jackets as an assistant to Scott Arniel, and became head coach on an interim basis on January 9, 2012,  when the Arniel experiment failed spectacularly. He received the permanent assignment in May of that year, and has compiled a 127-105-21 regular season record -- beating Hitchcock's 125 wins.  He also has the distinction of coaching the first two playoff wins in club history.  USA Hockey thought enough of his skill set to name him their head man for the upcoming Worlds.  Finally, almost lost in the shuffle is the fact that the 2014-15 squad, facing unprecedented injury problems, ended the year with a record 15-1-1 streak and collected the second-highest win total in franchise history (just one shy of last year's record of 43).

On its face, this is a pretty impressive record, in a relatively short period of time.  He had only one year as an NHL assistant under his belt before taking the reins in Minnesota, so this whole NHL Head Coach thing has been very much a learn-on-the-job mission for him.  You also have the much bigger question of how much credit/blame goes to coach vs. players.  That's a topic for another article, but certainly Richards does not present the corrosive influence on the organization and players that a Hitchcock and Tortorella have carried with them.  So, what's the beef?  What's the source of criticisms?

Part of the issue with Richards has always been the question of presentation.  He brings that Minnesota sense of reserve to the microphone -- for the most part -- and treads a center line that does not give rise to controversy, but also can lead the casual observer to question the passion or commitment.   I personally have never questioned his commitment to the club, but have often sought some outward expression of passion -- the periodic righteous indignation at some actual or perceived transgression committed by a player or official.   In his post-game pressers, Richards has frequently been asked a question about some player's performance during the game, or a specific incident, and responds with some version of "I don't know.  I don't get to see much of the game, as I have other things to focus on."  Now, I've never been an NHL coach, but I have listed to dozens and dozens of them speak over the years, and I have never heard another professional coach utter these words.  I understand the concern about line match-ups and such, but how do you make those judgments (and the numerous in-game line changes), without watching the game?  Such statements just add fuel to the fire for those -- including myself -- who have criticized Richards for being too remote and disconnected.

What I've come to appreciate is that Richard's style is just that -- his style.  He's not a glib, off-the-cuff kind of guy, and seems to spend a considerable amount of time in his own head.  As I'll discuss in a minute, I think results in over-thinking and tinkering at times, but at least I have confidence that he is thinking about a solution.  That hasn't always been true of Blue Jackets coaches (not to mention any names, but does "piling on" mean anything to you?"   I'd love to see Todd Richards loosen the emotional ties a bit and be a bit more candid in his remarks, but that's a bias I bring to the table.  As goofy as the "I wasn't watching the game" sounds -- and its sounds very goofy -- I suspect it might be Todd's way of saying "That wasn't my focus."   Coaches watch games differently than mere mortals, so at the end of the day, this may be more style than substance.  Maybe just a hint of a pulse from time to time, Todd?

The second issue is what I'll call "The Grit Factor", which has both substantive and communications components.  Addressing the latter first, Richards has been an outspoken proponent of "grit", "work", "toughness" and any other number of synonyms you can come up with for what the Hansen brothers would refer to as "Old Time Hockey."  It is premised upon physical play and hitting.  If a game goes badly, it's because the club "didn't work hard enough."  If they win, it's because they "did the work."   I think it's a given at the NHL level that all teams need to work hard to be successful, so these pronouncements really add little to the mix.  Secondly, it largely ignores the huge roles that speed and skill play in victories.  Speed and skill won't necessarily get you far without work (See Oilers, Edmonton), but all of the hard work and grit in the world is not going to have you hosting the Stanley Cup without speed and skill. The on-ice translation of this philosophy is an over-emphasis on the physical part of the game, an almost surreal devotion to Jared Boll's role on the ice, and a more stationary, conservative system.   With the Blue Jackets drafting tons of speed and skill, this is akin to taking a thoroughbred and hooking him up to a plow.  Now, to be fair, I bring a bias to the table of really preferring a fast, skilled game to a grinding, grabbing affair.

The litmus test for this entire issue is Cam Atkinson, who is to Todd Richards what Nikita Filatov was to Ken Hitchcock. (Calm down, Cam fans -- this isn't a direct comparison of Filatov and Atkinson.  This is simply a high level comparison of similar types of issues the two coaches faced. )  As you will recall, Filatov was a highly touted Russian with tons of offensive skills, no defensive skills, and marginal work ethic.  The organization (i.e. everyone except Hitchcock) was pushing him to make the big roster, and play a top six role.  Well, anyone watching Filatov play realized that he had as much business in a Ken Hitchcock system as I do.  (I might even do better, since I'm good at being a hindrance.  Think Holmstrom without skating ability.)  Worse, Filatov had no interest in working to change his game or earn his slot.  The result was inevitable.

Atkinson has presented an analogous challenge to Richards, in that he has all of the speed and skill in the world, but is hampered in the physical game by his size, and has been inconsistent away from the puck.  When Richards sat Atkinson for some games in the 2013-14 season, Atkinson let loose with some injudicious remarks that suggested he was not changing his game.  Trade rumors were abundant, and many viewed his future as indicative of whether grit was going to prevail over skill.  Well Atkinson was re-signed, at contract levels that amounted to an organizational warning along the lines of "We like you, we think you have potential, but you need to produce all season long, in all three zones."   Call it a split decision in favor of speed and skill.   Richards himself mentioned the need for more speed in the wake of last season's playoff series vs. Pittsburgh.  Though the Blue Jackets managed two victories in a highly entertaining series, it was clear that you can't hit what you can't catch, and the Penguins skill and speed trumped the Blue Jackets' grit all day long.

Of course, with the plethora of injuries this year, it has been difficult to properly assess anyone or anything.  However, it did not escape my notice that when the club returned to a reasonable facsimile of health in early March, Todd Richards let the boys play.  They played with speed and skill, with the "collapsing defense" that had succeeded only in collapsing leads only rarely in evidence.  Unlike the December streak, which was accomplished largely on the back of goaltending, this one was fueled by offense --  3.88 goals per game to be exact, which is the functional equivalent of Air Coryell for those who remember Dan Fouts and the San Diego Chargers.  Jared Boll made a token appearance after coming off of IR, then was banished to the Press Box for the remainder of the season, as the fourth line of Matt Calvert -- Mark Letestu and Jeremy Morin was simply too delicious to watch.  Suddenly, four lines could be rolled, and ice time more equitably allocated.

So, time will tell.  Was The Streak simply a grand experiment in a lost season, only to be replaced by True Grit next fall.  Or did it really represent bit of an epiphany on Richards' part?  Is Todd really ready to let guys do what they do best, and allow the grit to play nicely with speed and skill?   If he'll put up with the speed & skill, I'll tolerate the grit.

Finally, questions of game and line management come up from time to time.  For me, this boils down to seemingly random line changes -- both in game and  between games -- and the maddening tendency to go into a shell when obtaining a lead, or adopt the "prevent defense" when facing a team perceived to be "fast".   This latter issue directly resulted in some third period collapses which, in retrospect, might have cost Columbus a playoff berth.  Win one or two of those in regulation, and extend some of the other to OT, and there is a significant shift in points.  Be that as it may, the combination of the two has been an issue for some time, even in games in which the Blue Jackets prevailed. The net result is a game where the opponent dominates possession and shots, where you increasingly rely on goaltending to get you through, and where the margin of error is nil.  That pretty much describes much of the Blue Jackets saga from pre-season through February.   Again, once health returned, the ship righted itself a bit.  However, this was an issue even before the injury bug arose, so there is a systemic element at play.  It will be interesting to see how this develops next season.

In terms of line management, maybe a bit more of a pass is justified, due to the injuries.  Still, some of the changes defied description.  Corey Tropp on the top line?  Breaking up Nick Foligno & Ryan Johansen when that was the only line that was working?  Sitting faster players in favor of size for games where speed is essential.  From the outside looking in, it appears that there are players Todd Richards desperately wants to be better than they are.  So, he keeps putting them in situation over their ability level, and the results are inevitable.  As Einstein said, "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different result."   Perhaps his late season benching of Jared Boll signaled Richards' return to roster sanity.  We shall see.

So, in summary, I've got to admit to perhaps being overly harsh to Coach Richards.  Some is a matter of style over substance, other aspects perhaps due mostly to the injury plague, and still other elements due simply to overall grouchiness on my part over a season that succumbed to medical maladies.  Just as a good stock broker is judged just as much on how  he or she does in bear markets as in bull markets, I think an NHL coach needs to find ways to get results in both the times of adversity and the good times.  Though it was a horrifically uneven season, when the curtain dropped, there was abundant hope for next year.  So,  I'll be rooting for Todd & Team USA at the Worlds, and will be looking to see more of what we saw in March come September.  If we don't, I fully reserve my right to bitch and moan again.  I'm sure Todd is really worried about that.  Stay tuned.