Wild fires Richards
ST. PAUL, Minn. — Todd Richards' second season as Minnesota Wild coach was his last.
When the Wild finished 12th in the Western Conference on Sunday and failed to reach the playoffs for the third consecutive season, Richards became the fall guy Monday morning.
Ultimately, the Wild collapsed during an eight-game losing streak at the worst possible time.
At a news conference at Xcel Energy Center, Wild General Manager Chuck Fletcher called Richards "a good coach; a good hockey coach."
"His work ethic was unbelievable. His passion to win was great," Fletcher said. "But, ultimately, it's my responsibility to make the right decision for the organization. And I felt going forward we needed a new voice and a new direction and I made the decision to let Todd go."
According to sources, assistant coach Dave Barr and video coach PJ DeLuca also were fired. The other assistants are all in limbo. Rick Wilson is the only one with one year left on his deal, and Fletcher said the new coach will not have "complete control" of hiring his new staff.
Richards had basically been on the hot seat long before training camp, but that subsided when the team settled down in late December and played strong hockey for 2 ½ months. But the last time the Wild was in the top-eight was after an overtime win in Anaheim on Feb. 25.
The Wild missed the playoffs for the third year in a row, second under Richards. The team, which played in front of non-sellout crowds for the first time in its history, spent close to $60 million in payroll, near the maximum allowed by the NHL salary cap.
Richards, who had one more year left on his contract, was hired in June 2009 to transform the organization. He was the young face with brown hair, a Minnesota native and 21 years younger than the only previous coach in franchise history — Jacques Lemaire. Richards' task was to end the years of conservative hockey with a fresh, up-tempo attacking system.
Fletcher, at his Monday news conference, called it a difficult decision.
"Professional sports, it's a great business to work in. And most days are great days." Fletcher said. "This is not one of them. ... There is a human side to this. He's got a family, and certainly it's not easy on anybody.
"But, again, we're in the business of winning and losing games. And the results are what they are. And part of my decision is based on the results of the past two seasons, part of my decision was based on the fact, I thought, we needed more from some players. And part of my decision was based on the fact that, going forward, we needed a new voice to maximize production from this particular group of players.
"I want to point out, I really do believe in sports that not every coach is the right fit for every team. Teams have different personalities, there are different talent levels and not every coach fits with every team."
Most felt deprogramming the Wild after eight seasons of Lemaire would not be simple, and there were indeed growing pains. In Richards' first season, the Wild finished 13th in the West, not spending more than a day in the top-eight.
The system may have looked more entertaining last year, but the Wild finished 22nd in the NHL with 214 goals (2.61 goals per game) — the exact totals of 2008-09.
And while the Wild failed to score more goals, it managed to give up more. After yielding the fewest goals in the West in 2008-09, the Wild gave up 42 more goals last season (239).
Sixteen months ago, after watching Dan Bylsma win a 2009 Stanley Cup in Pittsburgh and witnessing the success of coaches like Mike Babcock and Bruce Boudreau, who had little or no NHL coaching experience before their first jobs, Fletcher got swept up by the notion of making the next great non-retread hire.
The overwhelming sentiment among the players was that Richards paid the price for a collective failure on the part of everyone, from the ice up. And that only made it worse. As Andrew Brunette said, not making the playoffs, and then having Richards fired made this a doubly bad Monday.
"We all had a hand in it," said Brunette. "It's good people that paid the price today. I don't know how fair that is."
Fair or not, it was the one move Fletcher could make. Brunette said another frustration was the team being in the playoff mix before struggling down the stretch.
"You feel terrible about it," he said. "(That stretch) was the kicker. To be so close at a period of time, and then to fall that fast. Like I said, it's unfortunate he had to pay the price when we didn't get the job done."
At the other end of the dressing room, Wild captain Mikko Koivu was saying the same sorts of things.
"It is disappointing for all of us," Koivu said. "At the end, it's basically the guys on the ice who play the game. When there aren't playoffs, usually, it's the head coach who gets the blame, and not the guys on the ice. That's the thing you feel bad about. That's the thing. It's something for all of us to realize. We're all in this together. And everybody has to think about what to do better and how we can help this team. I am obviously disappointed for Todd. It's tough, I'm sure. He did a lot of good things here. He taught us a lot about the game, on and off the ice."
As his bag was being packed for the last time this season, winger Cal Clutterbuck dwelled on the eight game winless streak that settled the playoff question once and for all, and might have sealed Richards' fate as well.
"We really fell into a funk," Clutterbuck said. "We were really frustrated. And guys weren't playing as well as we could have been, collectively. Myself included. It was a tough stretch for us, a tough thing to go through as a group. Especially a group that had high hopes this season. And we felt that once we got into the playoffs we'd be a difficult team to beat. ... It's disappointing. Because I think there is a collective agreement here that the team is definitely good enough to have made it."
Richards was considered the front-runner from the moment Fletcher took over as GM in June 2009, replacing Doug Risebrough. Fletcher and Richards had worked together in Wilkes-Barre, the Pittsburgh Penguins' chief farm team.
But Fletcher put his neck on the line by being a first-year GM hiring a first-year coach with limited credentials. Richards was largely considered the next big thing, but he had spent one year as an NHL assistant with San Jose after only two as head coach with Wilkes-Barre.
By hiring Richards, Fletcher passed over men with vast experience such as Dave Tippett, last season's Jack Adams Award (Coach of the Year) winner, and Peter Laviolette, who coached Philadelphia to the Stanley Cup Finals last season.
Richards, who hails from Crystal, Minn., was a star at Armstrong High School and the University of Minnesota. As a player, Richards won two WCHA titles with the Gophers, a 1991 Calder Cup with Springfield (AHL title), a 2001 Turner Cup with Orlando (2001) and a 2002 Swiss-B League title with Servette Geneve.
Richards, a second-round pick by the Montreal Canadiens in 1995, was a pure offensive defenseman during a bright high school, college and minor-league career. At Minnesota, where he was captain his senior year, Richards scored 30 goals and had 158 assists in four years, being named to the WCHA Second All-Star Team three consecutive years. In Las Vegas in 1994-95, he was IHL defenseman of the year after a 130-point season.
As an assistant coach in Milwaukee, the Admirals went to the Calder Cup finals twice in his tenure, winning one championship. As head coach in Wilkes-Barre from 2006-08, Richards won 98 games and took the Baby Penguins to the Calder Cup finals in 2008. The Sharks won the President's Trophy in Richards' only year as an assistant.