In Defense of Todd Richards

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I’ve been listening to people talk about how Todd Richards needs to be fired ever since the Wild first struggled in early October of 2009. It’s been pitched by everyone from casual observers to total puckheads. While one can certainly make the case that Richards’ tenure has not (yet) been very successful, I’m here to tell you that there might also be some compelling reasons to keep him.

No, I haven’t been drinking, and I don’t do drugs. No, I don’t know Todd Richards personally. And NO, Todd Richards isn’t paying me to write this.

It will sound completely insane to some Wild fans, but at this point, I think it might actually be best for the franchise to keep Todd Richards as the coach- for now anyway.

After the jump, find out why.

While it does seem like Richards’ days as the coach of the Wild might be numbered, it’s also worth trying to understand why he hasn’t yet been fired, and why it might actually make sense to at least put off terminating him for several more weeks, or even months.  Consider the following:

We are still dealing with the legacy curse of Doug Risebrough. Doug Risebrough might be a very classy man- a true gentleman for all I know. But it certainly is difficult to think so when you look at what he did to our franchise. His draft selections in the later years were absolutely horrendous. The trades he did make were generally terrible (see: Chris Simon), and the ones he didn’t make were usually even worse (see: Marian Gaborik). It’s true that Risebrough isn’t our GM anymore, but he has left us with a lot of long-term damage that doesn’t get better in only 12 or 18 months. Think about it- what if we had been able to get a first round draft pick and/or a solid prospect by trading Gaborik?

Chuck Fletcher is on the right path, but it will take a lot more time to see if he can somehow heal the wounds that Risebrough left behind. This doesn’t mean that Wild fans need to be patient, but it does mean that we need to adjust our expectations appropriately.

Just look at our roster. I mean, really- put down the pipe and LOOK at it! I’m a huge supporter of the Wild, but I really think some people are looking at this group of forwards through rose-tinted beer goggles.

I realize that the Wild is not playing very good hockey these days, but if you believe the Wild is really performing all that far below expectations, you are probably also delusional enough to believe that Antti Miettinen (who has never scored more than 20 goals in a season) and an aging Andrew Brunette (who is currently on pace for a whopping 12 goals) belong on the top line of an NHL team. If it’s any consolation to you, it’s not Bruno’s fault or Miettinen’s fault; neither of them really belongs on the top 2 lines at all with the way they’ve played this year, but the Wild just doesn’t have any choice. These guys are 2 of our best offensive players, and this should make all of us very, very sad.

At different times over the last 15 months or so, we’ve had Kyle Brodziak, Cal Clutterbuck, Andrew Ebbett, Patrick O’Sullivan, Eric Belanger, and Chuck Kobasew (and several others) see top-six minutes. I’m not going to talk much smack about these players right now (that’s for another blog entirely), but realistically, our team should be deep enough up front to keep these kinds of guys on the 3rd or 4th line.

Our opinions of Richards are going to be a little skewed because we will always compare him with Jacques Lemaire. I know that Richards has struggled, but I think it’s worth considering the fact that relative to someone like Jacques Lemaire, anyone else coming in was bound to look like an amateur. When Todd Richards was hired, I’d like to imagine that his first “befuddled-eyebrows-confused-face” must’ve come when he realized the size of the skates that Wild fans would be expecting him to fill.

It’s not like Richards replaced your average NHL coach…he replaced Jacques Lemaire! Richards’ predecessor spent the better part of 30+ years earning a stellar reputation as a player, coach, and all-around good hockey man, and he has the hardware to prove it. That’s right folks- Jacques Lemaire, winner of 8 Stanley Cups as a player, 2 Cups as assistant GM, 1 Cup as coach, 2 Jack Adams awards, and member of the HOCKEY HALL OF FAME, was replaced by…wait, Todd who?

Let’s give Richards some credit here. Remember folks, there are only 30 NHL coaching jobs in the world. It’s not like any old peewee coach can just walk in and get an interview, OK?

Furthermore, the mistakes that Richards makes are magnified by our comparisons to Lemaire. Whenever Jacques Lemaire would try to get his team going by juggling the lines or moving a centerman to wing, we assumed it was the right thing to do- after all, Lemaire had a big pile of hardware to back up his ideas. When Jacques would be hysterical with frustration, or when he tried to spin a tough loss into a “played-pretty-good-but-didn’t-get-the-bounces” type of moral victory, it always looked like a wise, intelligent, and cunning move from a veteran coach- and maybe it always was.

But when Richards does the same things, it usually looks like a young, inexperienced coach pushing the panic button, desperately trying to figure out exactly what his team needs because he doesn’t automatically know. It looks like every few games, Richards can’t explain the team’s problems, and seems like he’s secretly at the end of his wits with the players- even if he’s really not. What if this is just the way he comes off in media, or the way he looks relative to Lemaire, but behind closed doors he is totally different?

In hindsight, was the previous “regime”, including Jacques Lemaire, really all THAT great? No matter how many times we had a crappy November after storming out of the gate in October, no matter how many times we lost in the first round of the playoffs, no matter how many people made fun of us for having a “boring” coach, we just kept on believing that Lemaire would lead us to the promise land. But did he?

It’s worth noting that in nine seasons as head coach, Lemaire (whom I respect immensely) managed only 3 playoff appearances, and we only got past the first round of the playoffs ONE time. The Wild’s record in 2005-2006 under Lemaire was EXACTLY THE SAME as it was last season (38-36-8). We were ridiculed around the league for playing boring hockey, and we could not attract big-name free agents- especially players that specialize in scoring goals, mainly because those types of players generally don’t like to play for defensive-minded coaches.

Now, since Lemaire’s departure, we’ve been able to sign players like Martin Havlat and Matt Cullen as FREE AGENTS. And Wild hockey is at LEAST as exciting as it ever was. How many times did we come back to win games last season? Remember the comeback against Anaheim in the home opener?  And how about the biggest comeback in regular-season franchise history against the Blackhawks? Do you think a team with a crappy coach would’ve been able to do that- especially one with a roster like ours?!

Firing your coach is extremely disruptive for the team, and generally things get worse before they get better. In most cases, bringing in a new coach does NOT lead to immediate success on the ice. Of course, there are occasionally cases like Pittsburgh or Phoenix where the new coach comes in and quickly turns things around, but more often than not it’s quite the opposite. If things get much worse for the Wild at this point, the playoffs will quickly be out of reach and the season (not to mention considerable ticket sales in 2011) will be over before the end of January. Bringing in someone else is quite a gamble, and I don’t think it’s one that the Wild is willing to make right now.

If there’s any chance at all that Richards can right the ship, Fletcher should give him an opportunity to do so for a few more weeks. The Wild will still be able to give a replacement coach plenty of time to implement his systems for next season and get to know the players if they make a change at some point in February. If they make the change right now though, they might be throwing away the Wild’s best shot at the playoffs.

We have had some very major and very unfortunate injuries to several key players. Fundamentally, the Wild is only a true playoff team (on paper) if it’s 100% healthy, which it definitely has not been for the last 15 months. The team finally got Pierre-Marc Bouchard back after he missed an entire season with post-concussion syndrome, but it has now lost the leading scorer from last season, Guillaume Latendresse, due to a long-term groin injury. Those are two HUGE injuries to vital components of the Wild’s offensive attack.

The “regime change” wasn’t just a change of coach and front office personnel; it was a paradigm shift for the franchise. Since many of the players still on the squad (Schulz, Burns, Koivu, PMB) spent several of their formative development years learning the game from Lemaire, this is a HUGE change for the core members of the squad (especially Koivu). YES, it’s been about 18 months since Richards became the coach. YES, the players are all professionals and they should have adjusted by now.  But this could be another reason why the Wild can’t seem to consistently adhere to Richards systems- the players instincts have been hard-coded into doing things the Lemaire-way, and un-learning those teachings and abandoning those habits is not easy for hockey players to do.

Think about it- you spend several years listening to a Hall-of-Famer with eleventy billion Cup rings to his name who tells you to do things one way, and then suddenly some guy that has ZERO Cup rings comes along and tells you to do things 100% differently? I don’t know about you, but I sure would have a hard time listening to to the new guy with all of Lemaire’s Cups ringing in my ears!

There isn’t a perfect replacement available. First of all, let’s just do away with any notion that the Wild will bring in a defensive coach.  Fletcher has routinely voiced his support of up-tempo, aggressive hockey, and at this point I think he’s made it obvious enough that the only way the team hires a defensive coach is if it hires a new GM first.  So that takes options like Ken Hitchcock and Michel Therrien out of the mix right off the bat, even though rumors continue to circulate around Therrien ever since he was hired as a scout.  There will always be coaches out there that are viable options, but most of them are at least as much of a gamble as Richards was in 2009.

We may be witnessing Richards’ last days with the team, and I know I’m in the definite minority here, but I think the Wild’s problems can not be solved by a simple coaching change.  If we want to get this team back into the playoffs where it rightfully should be, we need to allow our GM the time it takes to build a contender.

So what do you think?  Am I totally out of my mind here?  Rant, rave, and rage at me in the comments, or find me on Twitter (@Engine37).

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Tags: Andrew Brunette Andrew Ebbett Antti Miettinen Cal Clutterbuck Chris Simon Chuck Fletcher Chuck Kobasew Doug Risebrough Eric Belanger Guillaume Latendresse Jacques Lemaire Kyle Brodziak Marian Gaborik Martin Havlat Matt Cullen Mikko Koivu Patrick O'Sullivan Pierre-Marc Bouchard Todd Richards

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