A look at Todd Richards
Earlier this summer, when Bob Boughner resigned as assistant coach of the Blue Jackets, Scott Arniel stated that he would look for a replacement for his staff with NHL experience - preferably as a former head coach.
With Todd Richards being fired in the same week by the Minnesota Wild, it seemed like a real possibility that he'd be given a look, and the Dispatch is reporting that Richards could interview as soon as this week.
When Minnesota interviewed Ken Hitchcock, Bryan Reynolds over at Hockey Wilderness asked me to write about if I thought he'd be a good fit. So, I decided to ask him to return the favor. Take a look at what he had to say.
With the news that Todd Richards is out interviewing for jobs, it is important to look at his time behind the bench of the Minnesota Wild and determine what went wrong. While there is no need to drag the body through the mud, examining his time here in Minnesota is certainly worthwhile for those teams who may be interested in taking him on and allowing him to coach their players.
The big question left lingering here in Minnesota is was it Richards, or was it the team? The easy answer is both, but it is also the correct answer, and yet it isn't as simple as that. The reasons behind the failure of the Richards regime go back t the foundations of the franchise, and span all the way through right up until his dismissal. Some things were under Richards' control, many things were not.
First off, Todd Richards was a magnificent hire by Chuck Fletcher. Richards' background was spectacular, and he came in as the highest rated coaching candidate out there by every one of the candidates for the GM position. Sure, he was a risk for a brand new GM, but it looked to be a calculated risk with tons of upside and little downside. Even looking back at the failures, there still isn't much downside there.
Richards was tasked with transforming a trap playing, defensive team into an "up-tempo," hard forechecking style team. He was not, however, given players that were capable of playing that style of hockey. The result was a disaster. From the outset, players were lost on the ice. Frustration grew amongst the players, including the top echelon of players on the roster. Richards struggled to get the players to do what he wanted, and players struggled to grasp what it was he wanted.
The defensemen in Richards' system were expected to activate, to pinch, at the right times. The result was record levels of odd man rushes against the Wild, including on the power play. It was not uncommon to see 2-0, and even 3-0 breaks with Niklas Backstrom beng hung out to dry.
The forwards, even after multiple practices, still were not committing to the forecheck. Under the Jacques Lemaire system, only one forward would forecheck, and even then would only forecheck if there was a clear chance to get possession. The forwards Richards were given could not wrap their head around this new style of play, and gave up on pucks too easily, allowing the opposition to take possession and head back up ice.
Fan expectations, while under control, were still high. They wanted the playoffs, and they wanted them now. History shows that didn't happen.
Looking at year two, fan expectations went through the roof. This was now Chuck Fletcher's team, with enough turn over in the roster to make it no longer a Doug Risebrough built team. The problem remaining was the leaders of the team still (quite literally) grew up playing for Jacques Lemaire. If the leaders aren't doing what the coach asks, then even the new players aren't going to.
Richards did bring in some new coaches with Darby Hendrickson and Rick Wilson. Wilson got the defense in order, and they played much better hockey. There was still some erratic play, but things did improve. The forwards, however, did not. Richards adjusted his system to fit the style the players were willing to play, moving from a two man forecheck to a one man, and allowing the forwards to play the style they were more comfortable with.
The result? More of the same.
This resulted in what is known now as "The Bag Skate." Just a handful of games into the season, Richards put his team through a punishing skate, stopping just short of Herb Brooksing the attitude right out of them. The team responded, to a point. Play improved, they won a few games, and Richards staved off being fired awhile longer.
Still, the "Fire Richards" crowd had their rallying cry. Richards had lost the team, and would never truly get it back. They would sometimes play his system, sometimes not. They would win sometimes, and most of the time not. An amazing run that saw the Wild as high as fifth in the conference had people talking Jack Adams trophy and wondering how they could have ever doubted him.
Then, as was inevitable, the wheels fell off, and Richards could do nothing to stop it. We heard the same line late in the season that we heard early in the season. The team was "waiting for something." Whatever it was, it never arrived, and when Richards was asked what was wrong, the answer was always "I don't know."
Todd Richards came in as a highly touted, highly regarded coaching candidate and left as a defeated, broken down coach with little success. The Wild missed the playoffs both of his seasons behind the bench, and the blood thirsty fans in Minnesota were shouting for more change. After a season ending victory over Dallas that vaulted Chicago into the playoffs, Todd Richards was allowed to give his final presser, and was fired the next day.
Where does the blame fall? That's still a source of debate. The "Fire Richards" crowd claims it is his style of coaching, and his system. The "Save Richards" camp claimed it was the players giving up on the coach, and on each other. The "Serenity Now" party says it is all of the above.
Richards was given a team with only three or four players who truly deserved to be in the NHL in the roles they were playing. He was expected to use players built to play a trap, but play like the Red Wings. Doug Risebrough left Chuck Fletcher with bad contracts and no one to call up to breathe life into the team. Todd Richards was left with zero help and his boss with no money to use to help him.
The players did, indeed, give up on their coach and on each other. That can certainly be pinned on the coach, as he didn't find a way to motivate them. It is also on the players for not being professionals and showing up for work. The way pro sports work, though, is you can't fire the players. Thus Todd Richards took the fall.
He is not without fault, as his in game management was lackadaisical at best. He had no idea when to call a time out, no idea how to match lines (at home or on the road), and could not control the flow of the game in the slightest. He left his star goaltender in for seven goals against on more than one occasion, not even giving Backstrom the option to come out. He butted heads with players, and had zero ability to motivate nor to hold them accountable.
In the end, it is all lessons learned for Richards. He still has a strong background. His system is sound, and can win games. Given some training on in-game management and player management, he could still be a very good NHL head coach. He is, without a doubt, a good man. He is honest, and straight forward and highly respectful. He may be too nice, but that is only a fault if it doesn't work.
As an NHL assistant coach, I have zero doubt he will do a superb job. The lessons he learned in failure will be valuable in success. Few in Minnesota would wish ill on him, and hope he does well in the future. It didn't work in Minnesota, but does not mean it can't work somewhere else.