When he hired in to serve as Scott Arniel’s top assistant for the Columbus Blue Jackets at the outset of the 2011-12 season, Todd Richards may have thought that this job was going to someday serve as a stepping stone to reclaiming a top bench job somewhere in the National Hockey League. I wonder if he thought that the wait would only last 41 games, and that he would be assuming the job of the man who helped hire him? Matters not at this point, we’ve got him here in Columbus…and it’s time to talk Columbus Blue Jackets coaching.
Todd Richards has been a revelation to me. I’ll be the first to acknowledge my 180-degree turnaround on him, from my rant over his hire as a CBJ assistant to now. I’ll also admit that I probably could not have been more wrong.
Thanks to the miracle of Google, I am able to pinpoint the exact day that I started my flip-flop: February 16, 2012. I had witnessed Richards for a month or so on the press availabilities broadcast on FSO’s “Blue Jackets Live” postgame shows, and he came across very much like a man who was keeping a seat warm. ”It’s the players’ team,” he would say (or something to that extent). ”If they want to win, they know that they’re going to have to step up and play harder, do the right things…” You get the drift. Richards was the passenger, and the roster was driving the train for the balance of the season.
But then February 16th happened. I finally sat in on a Richards-coached practice and saw a team that was more energetic and engaged than any Blue Jackets team I’d ever witnessed. And remember, this was February. From a playoffs perspective, the season was lost months earlier.
The magnitude of the shift in tone was incredible. When Ken Hitchcock ran practices, the team seemed almost scared of the coach – whereas with Scott Arniel, I’m not sure that the team really respected him and his endless whiteboard sessions. In both cases, the practices were largely quiet as church. With Richards, however, there was cheering and excitement. Players were egging each other on. The guys were smiling…something I thought that the Blue Jackets forgot how to do. And they were practicing hard.
Did it matter that Rick Nash wasn’t at practice? Did it matter that Jeff Carter wasn’t there, either? Perhaps…perhaps the rest of the team got to let their hair down as their superstars weren’t around. In retrospect, I think that what I saw – a Nash-less Blue Jackets squad, back in February – was just a glimpse of what we have to come in Columbus.
Todd Richards was 18-21-2 in his 41 games as CBJ head coach last season. Seven of those losses came in his first ten games. As a fan, I’m willing to discount those games because of the transition from the old coach to the new coach. Systems have to be unlearned, attitudes have to adjust and the new coach needs a little time to make his imprint on the team. So let’s pull those ten games out. How does 16-14-1 sound? Extrapolate that over 82 games, and you have 42-37-3, or an 87-point season. 87 points isn’t going to get you into the playoffs (the LA Kings took 8th in the NHL’s Western Conference with 95 points), but it’s a far cry from a 65-point, 15th place finish. And 42-37-3 would have been the second winning record in team history.
My point is, Richards apparently knows how to coach. Granted he was coaching meaningless games (the season was over by Halloween), the opposition was parading their backup goaltenders against his team and that he was still playing Rick Nash up to the end of the season, but Richards did put a winning record together after the initial transition. He also did this with a roster that wasn’t too different than the one which helped Arniel stumble to his coaching demise (OK, Jeff Carter was all but out and Jack Johnson hadn’t arrived…I’ll buy that).
Armed with a two-year contract, Richards now also has his people installed as assistants. Gone is the rookie coaching team of Arniel, Boughner, Berry and Rook. Replacing them is Richards, former NHL bench boss (over seven seasons in Chicago, Anaheim and Ottawa) Craig Hartsburg and longtime assistant Keith Acton. The only coaching holdovers are Ian Clark (who replaced Rook) and Dan Hinote. By and large, this is an experienced crew that one would think is more suited to fighting the battles needed to turn this team into a winner.
Richards is going to need this coaching acumen to get things into high gear in Columbus. When you inherit a team which management acknowledges is lacking in star power, you have to coach differently. I’m not saying Richards is better or worse off by not having Nash or Carter around, just that it’s very different and will require creative schemes and coaching skills that bring out the best in a host of capable (if not overwhelming) players. If the transition from the Minnesota Wild to Columbus showed me anything, it’s that Richards learned volumes from his time in the State of Hockey and applied them to the Blue Jackets. He coached differently and eventually saw some positive results.
It’s going to be a fascinating NHL season in Columbus (provided that there is an NHL season, but that’s another story altogether). If it turns out to be better than expected, I have a feeling that we’ll all be mentioning Todd Richards’ name when the kudos are handed out.
Goaltending is the deciding factor in many NHL games, and I still have no idea what to make of the Blue Jackets’ goaltending situation. But goaltending aside, I suggest that coaching is what will get this team back on track. Remember, it was a future Hall of Fame coach (Hitchcock) who whipped the once-lackluster Blue Jackets into a playoff team in just over two seasons. Coaching matters, my friends…it matters a LOT.
Let’s wrap up these ruminations on Todd Richards with a comment that I overheard from a fellow fan at CannonFest. The fan shared that Richards describes himself as a coach with no formal “system” of play, something I don’t recall hearing before. Richards apparently prefers to adapt his system to the talent at hand. Can you think of a more perfect mindset when you are genuinely clueless about who will be your star player on a given night? That approach – combining a positive working environment with a flexible, adaptable scheme – might be just what this team needs.
Good luck, coach Richards. Considering how you wrapped up last season, I can’t wait to see what you come up with in 2012-13.