Blue Jackets Coaching Change: Thank You, Todd Richards
It wasn't always great. Hell, it was frustratingly stoic at times. But, it was good far more often than it was not, save this final two week stretch.
"Jesus, everything ends badly, otherwise it wouldn't end."
--Brian Flanagan, Cocktail
Whether that sentiment is true or not on a universal scale, it's certainly true of the tenure as head coach of the Blue Jackets for Todd Richards. I like Todd Richards. He was a great person to be around. I never once felt like I was being talked down to, even if I asked him what could be considered a stupid question. Everyone I know from the Columbus media will pretty much all say he's a great guy.
That's all well and good, but it goes beyond that. Todd Richards came to Columbus as an assistant in the summer of 2011, under then-coach Scott Arniel. He had just been fired from Minnesota. It was thought that he could help Arniel with another voice with head coaching experience on the bench after a hot start in 2010 faded into a distant finish. Expectations were high, then, with Jeff Carter and James Wisniewski and Vinny Prospal to go with Rick Nash.
With just 11 wins at the midway point (11-25-5), Arniel was fired. Richards was given the interim tag, and after a short grace period during which the team's Captain and franchise player asked for a trade (and the ensuing trade deadline drama), the team put itself together and soldiered on, finishing 18-21-2; not great, but respectable all things considered. Post trade deadline? 11-9-0. For a team that was awful for almost all of the year, this was a nice breath of fresh air.
Richards earned himself the full time gig with that stewardship, and compiled a record (including that stint) of 127-112-14. Good, but not great. Good enough for a playoff spot, a lost tie-breaker for a playoff spot, and the label "the most dangerous team that went through 508 man-games lost" in his three full seasons.
Richards certainly leaves the Blue Jackets better than when he came. There's no disputing that. That he did it with class, dignity, respect, and a general good attitude only helps bolster my memories of his time here. There was never a "dead man walking" press conference moment like Scott Arniel had. I don't remember him ever going out of his way to badmouth a player in public. For those things, he should be lauded. His almost perpetual even keel probably saw the team through some losing streaks but also kept them grounded through some of their crazy winning streaks. That streakiness, however, was too often a hallmark of his teams in Columbus. Hot or cold; never consistent in a business that aches for consistency.
And, that same stoic demeanor cuts both ways, unfortunately. When the team struggled out of the gate every single year he was at the helm, it was maddening. He preached--and exuded--patience, almost to a fault, which can be frustrating when a team has high expectations and spins its wheels to start a season--especially when we've all seen what they're capable of and watch them continue to play so far from that. As this season quickly unraveled just seven games in, Richards never seemed to have an answer. That same quiet calmness portrayed a complete lack of urgency and a complete lack of solution to the problems we all saw. Some of that can be laid at the feet of the players, but a lot of it rightfully was laid at the feet of Richards.
His system worked, and it worked with this club. We saw them grind teams down in each of the last three full seasons. We know it works, and we know it works with this core of players. The problem is that when a team has no confidence, there's so little room for error. When your goaltender is struggling, each and every mistake costs you. When each and every mistake costs you, the team plays tight. When the team plays tight, the team shoots 5.8%, for example. You don't win many hockey games when those two things collide.
That's not to say Richards' coaching was perfect; far from it. His tendency to shuffle lines could border on the absurd at times. The team spent this entire training camp with the same lineup, "building chemistry" with one another. Within two games, that was all gone. For all of his outward calm, it gave off the impression that Richards was panicking, not trusting his players or his system. His lineup choices themselves (who to ice, who to scratch) sometimes resulted in the scratching of heads. His insistence on playing slower, more physically-minded players at times seemed baffling. We had hoped that, based on the team's finish and the lineup they iced, maybe that was gone.
One can only coach the roster one has had assembled for them by management, and there are no arguments about the fact that this roster has playoff-level talent and expectations, but also clearly has a couple of major holes. I can't imagine anyone in the organization expected the defense to be this bad, this turn-over prone to start the season. That contributes to the confidence both of the skaters as well as the goalie. It all snowballs.
That said, literally none of the players is playing at what I would believe to be the expectations we had going into the season. Ryan Johansen has six points in seven games, but looks disinterested. Nick Foligno appears to be trying to do far too much, as if the new "C" on his sweater is carrying an unbearable weight. Brandon Saad looks as advertised, but outside of his Power Play goals he hasn't been able to chip in at even strength as one might hope. The defense looks lost. Sergei Bobrovsky looks like he's not even on this planet right now in terms of his confidence and play.
NONE of those things were to be expected.
The problem is that Todd Richards couldn't get in front of those issues, couldn't adapt to them, couldn't get them straightened out. Moreover, he didn't have an explanation publicly for them. That combination cost him his job last night.
It was the right move. It was the right time, though some might argue it's too late. It was clear that staying the course was not going to yield the results that this team expects, and unfortunately for Todd Richards it means he's out of a job this morning.
But, to me at least, these last seven games do not define the tenure of Todd Richards. To allow them to do so ignores so many other things. It ignores the work done to pull those 2011-2012 Jackets out of the doldrums. It ignores the work done in a lockout-shortened season--with no training camp--to integrate a ton of new players onto the roster and to get them within a tie-breaker point of the playoffs. It ignores the work done to get a team spinning its wheels the following season to put it all together at the right time and make the playoffs. It ignores taking that same group of players and convincing them they could skate with the mighty Penguins in the playoffs. And it ignores keeping a team motivated in spite of nearly unprecedented injuries last season. That team showed us that the talent is there. They just need to be led in the right direction again.
I have no idea if John Tortorella is the right man for this job right now. I maintain: it will either work really, really well, or implode in spectacular fashion. To me, they're either a 100 point team or a 50 point team, but perhaps that's simply my emotions talking right now. Honestly, though, you could sell me that this team will go 45-20-10 the rest of the way or also 20-45-10. Both seem equally plausible.
But, it was clear that Todd Richards isn't the guy to get them to that 45-20-10 plateau, and a change had to be made. Everything ends badly, or else it wouldn't end.