The Columbus Blue Jackets have not been very good lately, after jumping out to a respectable, if unspectacular 5-5-0 record the Jackets have since dropped 6 of their last 7 including a disappointing 4-3 overtime loss to divisional foes Washington Tuesday evening. In those 7 games the formula has been fairly consistent: despite a five-goal effort in their lone victory (against the Islanders on Saturday) the offense has contributed just a touch over 2 goals per game, the team has been embarrassed in transition and Sergei Bobrovsky looks, how should we say it, “vulnerable.” Does this make Head Coach Todd Richards the next NHL coach likely to face the head coaching guillotine?
It’s hard to say. We need to bear in mind the circumstances under which Richards came to be the head coach in Columbus. Richards was promoted to interim head coach January 9, 2012 after the team unequivocally quit on previous head coach Scott Arniel. And that was just the tip of the iceberg: still to come was the Rick Nash trade, the firing of former GM Scott Howson, and the anticipation of years of dismantling the ugly infrastructure created by ineffective guidance. And while it is a credit to new team president John Davidson and GM Jarmo Kekalainen that the team has largely already cut through the bad bureaucracy that has marred the Blue Jackets throughout their history. The fact remains, however, that Davidson and Kekalainen have been able to make dramatic changes because of the surprising on ice relevance of the team, which is a credit to Richards. But there’s more to it.
The Todd Richards Playbook
Todd Richards’ coaching philosophy is a good one. He’s an aggressive coach that promotes a fast transition game, aggressive forechecking, and physical play. He won the Calder Cup as an assistant coach with the Milwaukee Admirals in 2004, he was the head coach of the Wilkes Barre/Scranton Penguins from 2006-2008 ultimately serving as mentor and ideological guidepost for Stanley Cup and Jack Adams winner Dan Bylsma who was promoted to head coach following Richards’ departure to work as an assistant coach in the San Jose organization. Richards earned his first head coaching job one year later, for the 2009-2010 season, with the Minnesota Wild.
Playing an aggressive forecheck style requires players capable of matching an up-tempo game. Throughout much of Richards’ tenure in Minnesota that was a luxury he did not possess. In fact, Richards inherited a team based on the principles of the Jacques Lemaire Left Wing Lock, or in other words, a whole bunch of oversized, slow skating, unathletic bodies without much concept as to how the forecheck actually works.
Unfortunately, even with a team retooled to fit his system, Richards failed to deliver the Wild to the postseason in his second season at the helm in Minnesota. This led to his dismissal from the Wild and his eventual signing with the Blue Jackets. For an awesome read on Richards’ coaching-style and successes and failures in Minnesota check out this read from The Cannon.
The Blue Jackets Have Been Building Around Richards’ Brand of Hockey
Whether Scott Howson knew it or not, many of his final acquisitions before his termination have proven to be wonderful system players for Todd Richards. You need look no further than the team’s current top-two scorers so far this season–Brandon Dubinsky, a fleet-footed, hard charging, aggressive forechecker, and James Wisniewski, a smart, aggressive, skilled defenseman–to find the kind of players needed to make Richards’ system work.
Jarmo has certainly continued the trend of finding players to play Richards’ system highlighted of course by the Nathan Horton signing, and significantly underscored by the team’s decision not to work out a new contract with last year’s leading scorer, the aged Vinny Prospal. Further, promising youngsters like Cam Atkinson and Ryan Murray should benefit from the freedom to create in the offensive zone.
But merely acquiring players who play well in certain systems is not inherently enough motivation to keep a failing coach on board. As the article from The Cannon establishes, for all his tactical qualifications, Richards seems to lose something with his players. In 3 full seasons as a head coach, Richards has still yet to guide a team to the postseason, and perhaps more tellingly, Richards has yet to prove that he is capable of leading a team for an entire regular season: a point that he is well on his way to reinforcing this season.
Further, the Blue Jackets organization cannot forget that ultimately they are still building for the future, and that bad traits (like making bad decisions to pinch in the offensive zone, giving inconsistent efforts between games and between shifts, and failing to adequately backcheck) learned by the team’s very young nucleus could be magnified later in their career. Currently the Blue Jackets are organized to be a wide-open, run-and-gun type team, unfortunately, they do not score like such a team. A coach with a more methodical approach, who could tighten up the Jackets defensive zone coverages and demand stronger backchecking efforts from the team, could be the answer.
The Final Verdict
Voices, including the influential ones of Jeff Marek and Greg Wyshynski, continue to suggest that Richards is on thin ice. Little has emerged, however, from the fine reporters at the Columbus Dispatch to truly suggest that a coaching change is imminent. The surest way for Todd Richards to get off the hot seat is to coax his team into playing 60 full minutes, to get them to build offense off of sound defense, and to win some games. If, however, the team continues to blow 3rd period leads, as they did on Tuesday, there probably will not be much left to discuss. What do you think the Blue Jackets should do with Todd Richards? Let us know in the comments.
Andrew is a professional student earning his Masters at WVU. He enjoys craft beer and watching open wheel racing. Find him on Twitter: @andrewroman.