Per the Dispatch, the Columbus Blue Jackets have chosen to forego a formal search for a new head coach (or if they did one, nobody knew about it) and have removed the “interim” tag from head coach Todd Richards’ nameplate on the office door at Nationwide Arena.
It’s hard for me to utter the word “permanent” in relation to the CBJ head coach position because, well, the job has been anything but permanent over the 11 seasons that the Blue Jackets have played hockey. To date, the CBJ have seen eight people stand behind the bench: 1. Dave King, 2. Doug MacLean, 3. Gerard Gallant, 4. Gary Agnew, 5. Ken Hitchcock, 6. Claude Noel, 7. Scott Arniel, 8. Richards. That works out to just less than one-and-a-half seasons per coach. Gulp.
Veering back to Richards and his time in Columbus, he took over on January 9th and amassed a record of 18-21-2. But let’s be fair to the man, he had a house afire when he took over from Scott Arniel. With the help of a little roster churn that probably did more to change locker room culture than provide Richard with additional on-ice weapons, he did his darndest to turn lemons into lemonade…and did OK at that, as this breakdown of (more or less) 10-game segments suggests:
- Games 42-50 (Arniel coached Game 41): 2-6-1
- Games 51-60: 5-4-1
- Games 61-70: 4-6-0
- Games 71-82: 7-5-0
So toss out that first stretch where Richards had to gain the confidence of a roster that arguably gave up on Scott Arniel and simultaneously install a National Hockey League-competitive scheme, and you have a 16-15-1 record. Was that record built deep in garbage time for the CBJ’s 2011-12 season, calling into question the true value of the games coached? Yes, but the Richards-coached CBJ teams beat a handful of teams that were deep into playoff races. Was it built upon a roster that had a LOT of AHL-quality players? Yes. So we have a mixed bag of factors upon which to judge Richards.
What Richards did bring to the table, and I saw it with my own eyes, was the ability to take an indifferent (depressed?) roster and inject a little enjoyment into the game. The differential in skill between the good teams and the bad teams in the NHL exists, to be sure, but I maintain that it’s not as huge as one would think. A winning attitude is a huge component. Part of a winning attitude is a level of excitement at coming to the rink, practicing hard and working together to achieve a common goal. Talented teams with bad attitudes don’t do well. Mediocre teams with great attitudes can often surprise. Richards worked hard to instill a positive mindset in the locker room – perhaps as a reflexive response to the somber end of the Arniel regime, perhaps not. Point being, the record improved while the team’s talent level, on balance, probably dropped.
And while I said that the skill differential isn’t that big in the NHL, we still are talking about the 30th-ranked team when discussing the Columbus Blue Jackets. They were at the bottom of the NHL barrel for a reason, and coaching wasn’t the only factor. An improvement in attitude gets that roster to just over .500 when the games don’t matter. The team still needs a healthy injection of talent this offseason to be consistently competitive. I’ll get to it over time, but that injection needs to happen first in goal, then on the forward lines. Without a meaningful skill upgrade, I don’t expect Columbus to magically turn into a playoff contender next season.
So was it a great hire? Not necessarily. Was it a good hire? I can buy that.
But did making Todd Richards the full-time head coach of the Columbus Blue Jackets remove “coaching” as an excuse for the team underperforming in 2012-13? In this fan’s estimation…at this point in time…probably.