Myers: March mess cost Todd Richards his job
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Many a promising country music career has come to an inglorious end thanks to one bad performance before a big crowd in Nashville. We never thought that circumstance would be the end, or at least the beginning of the end, for a Minnesota hockey coach.
But when one looks back on the Minnesota Wild's season of early struggles, surprising promise and ultimate underachievement, a March 10th visit to the home of the Nashville Predators is where the biggest trouble started. By the time those struggles had passed, the Wild was out of the playoffs for the third consecutive season, and coach Todd Richards had seen his first stint as the head man behind a NHL bench come to an involuntary end.
The team started slow, as was a hallmark of both seasons Richards spent coaching in his home state. The preseason began with a first in the decade of team history - unsold seats for a home game. With the 400-plus game sellout streak at an end and bad news in goal, where backup netminder Josh Harding was lost for the season with a knee injury, the Wild also kicked off the season with a losing streak a long, long way from home. In Helsinki, the team lost in regulation and in a shootout to the Carolina Hurricanes, and came home with only one point to show for all of their travel.
There was the interesting acquisition of Jose Theodore to back up Nicklas Backstrom in goal. October and November were also marked by a dramatic shift away from the high-tempo offense that Richards had said he wanted to play from the moment he returned to Minnesota to take over what Jacques Lemaire walked away from in 2009. Would-be offensive stars like Martin Havlat and Mikko Koivu were not producing goals early in the run-up to Halloween, and the team was instead being driven by Backstrom and defenseman Brent Burns, who was the team's leading scorer at Thanksgiving.
So Richards fell back to winning with what he had, content to put fewer than 20 shots on the opponent's goal if it meant a route to a 1-0 or 2-1 win. And on many nights, it meant exactly that. After an ugly 1-5-2 stretch in late November and early December, the Wild hit a stride of sorts, with Havlat heating up and Cal Clutterbuck emerging as a fan favorite, as happy to land a punch as he was to set up a goal. For a time, Clutterbuck led the Wild in offense while leading the NHL in hits. Added to that was the boost the team got from the return of Pierre-Marc Bouchard from concussion trouble that had cost him a season.
When Backstrom was lost for a few weeks in early January with hip trouble, Theodore filled in nicely, and the Wild was suddenly in the thick of the Western Conference playoff hunt. The team headed to the All-Star break having won three of four on the road, including an impressive 4-2 domination of the defending Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks in Chicago. In February, with the team holding serve at home and dominating divisional foes like Edmonton and Colorado, the Wild rose as high as fifth in the conference standings at one point, and there was legitimate talk of home ice in the first round of the playoffs.
But with events like the Minnesota State Hockey Tournament and the WCHA Final Five held in St. Paul every spring, March always means road games for the Wild, and with that part of the schedule looming, many wondered if another fresh face or two was needed for the potential playoff push. General manager Chuck Fletcher looked at what was available at the trade deadline, saying the price was too high for the third- and fourth-line talent that was being shopped, and he elected to stand with the hand he'd been dealt. That prompted some grumbling in the locker room, and may have been a sign of trouble on the horizon.
After losing three of four in early March, the Wild stomped the hapless Avalanche at home to remain tied for the eighth and final Western Conference playoff spot, then headed off on a crucial four-game road trip, fully aware that the fate of their season may be decided while wearing the road whites and inhabiting the visitors' dressing room.
Which brings us to that Thursday night in Nashville, where the Wild kicked off the road quartet, and fell flat right from the start. Trailing 2-0 barely four minutes into the game, the Wild entered a tailspin from which it would never fully recover, losing 4-0 that night, losing 4-0 the next night in Dallas and rattling off eight losses in a row. As the Wild was sliding out of the playoff race, team owner Craig Leipold made it known privately, and to select members of the media, that he still had faith in Fletcher, but Richards was likely to pay for the team's shortcomings.
In fairness, the Wild got key injuries at the worst times, as Koivu and Clutterbuck missed significant time in March. But when they went looking for new leaders, none emerged, as Burns cooled off and got into the nasty habit of bad turnovers and bad times. Havlat, who led the team in scoring with 62 points for the season, was a non-factor by March, missing several games late in the season and playing like a man seeking a coaching change on other nights. The future of Havlat and Burns in Minnesota are two questions that Fletcher, and the next coach, are likely to address over the summer.
The team finished with a win, getting a small measure of revenge for Norm Green's spiriting away the North Stars all those years ago and beating Dallas on the final day of the season to keep the Stars out of the playoffs. Afterward Richards evaluated his team and his season, sounding at times like a man determined to fight for his job, even while taking the time to thank the trainers and equipment managers, like a man who was saying goodbye.
"We've asked ourselves 'why' a lot," Richards said, recounting the March mess. "With my job and doing certain things, without question you look back and there's always hindsight. Would you do some things differently? Absolutely there are some things I'd do differently, but for the most part there's not too many things I would change."
The next day, the first thing that changed was him, as Fletcher announced that the kid from Crystal, who grew up dreaming of being a Gopher and a North Star, and got to live one of those dreams, was out of a job.
While the next coach has yet to be named, we already got a glimpse of what some of the next team's personnel might look like. Fletcher called handfuls of Houston Aeros (Maxim Noreau, Drew Bagnall, Nate Prosser and Cody Almond, to name a few) up to St. Paul en masse late in the season and got a first-hand look at what young talent could do versus NHL-level competition. When the college season ended, he snapped up a few familiar names as well, signing high-scoring forward Justin Fontaine from NCAA champion Minnesota Duluth, and puck-moving but injury prone defenseman Chay Genoway from WCHA champion North Dakota.
We've likely seen the last of veterans like Andrew Brunette and John Madden in a Wild uniform. We will definitely see a new coach sometime soon, and the odds-on favorite is a veteran in the Ken Hitchcock mode, with Leipold and Fletcher likely to look for experience after not liking what they got from the youth of Richards.
There are no playoff games in St. Paul for the third consecutive season, but the top brass from every team in the league will be coming to visit in June, when the Wild hosts the NHL Draft. That will be a chance for Fletcher to once again mine for youthful talent, in hopes of building a playoff team with consistent scoring and more depth - two things sorely lacking on the 2010-11 Wild.
For Richards there will likely be other coaching opportunities down the road. And there will surely be painful memories of that night in Tennessee, when a season filled with such promise went so badly, so quickly.