CHICAGO, IL - JANUARY 10: Interim head coach Todd Richards of the Columbus Blue Jackets watches as his team takes on the Chicago Blackhawks at the United Center on January 10, 2012 in Chicago, Illinois. The Blackhawks defeated the Blue Jackets 5-2. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Todd Richards and the Columbus Blue Jackets will remain together for the foreseeable future, but just how long the marriage lasts might rely on more Richards' boss than the coach himself.
NHL teams have yet to find a blueprint for hiring coaches. In some cases, one team's trash is another team's Jack Adams candidate.
The Columbus Blue Jackets hope this is the case, as former Wild coach Todd Richards was named head coach Monday. Richards took over as interim coach when Scott Arniel was fired Jan. 9. It's not like Columbus got appreciably better under Richards' leadership, but there was improvement. The Blue Jackets went 18-21-2 after Richards took over, and did much better when it came to holding third-period leads.
In a team statement, general manager Scott Howson simply indicated that management felt the team improved with Richards on board as interim head coach, and he deserved an opportunity to continue the work he started.
Richards spent two seasons as head coach for the Minnesota Wild, and posted an unimpressive 77-71-16 record as the Wild missed the playoffs twice. Richards was fired last April, eventually replaced by Houston (AHL) coach Mike Yeo. The Wild had Yeo in the Jack Adams conversation heading into December, but flopped badly after that. The flop -- keyed by an injury to captain Mikko Koivu -- led to the Wild finishing out of the playoff picture once again.
Similarly, Richards had the Wild in playoff position during his second season before a late-season flop keyed by an injury to captain Mikko Koivu.
Interviewed by Michael Russo of the Minneapolis Star Tribune after his ouster in Minnesota, Richards refused to blame anyone but himself.
"Just disappointed. Just disappointed in myself, that’s all," he said. "I needed to do a better job — simple as that."
The accountability was impressive from Richards, who was stuck coaching a team in transition. General manager Chuck Fletcher was trying to rebuild the farm system, and he didn't want to get stuck in a bunch of bad contracts while he did that, so the NHL roster was startlingly thin (it was again in 2011-12 under Yeo, and this was a big reason why the team fell so quickly in the standings).
At the same time, Richards clearly wasn't about to bus-chuck Fletcher for not giving him anything to work with. He didn't necessarily do a good job holding players accountable, and he struggled to adjust, both during games and when things went badly over a stretch of the season. These are things he recognized, and that he appears to have worked to improve.
"He's holding everyone accountable," (forward Colton) Gillies (played for Richards in Minnesota) said. "He's just tougher (than he used to be). He definitely has a plan going into practice, and he has done a good job of motivating players."
Like I've said before, it isn't as easy as, "Well, this way worked for this team, so it has to work here." Yeo couldn't turn the Wild around quickly, but Paul MacLean and Glen Gulutzan -- both also first-time NHL head coaches who were in the AHL last season -- did quite well. The Senators made the playoffs when no one expected them to, and the Stars almost joined them amid similarly dire predictions heading into the season.
Look what Darryl Sutter did in Los Angeles, and Ken Hitchcock in St. Louis. How about Pete DeBoer in New Jersey? Then check out what happened with Ron Wilson, also a coach hired by a team after being fired by another.
I'm not saying the Blue Jackets are on the verge of a Stanley Cup run, but the fact Richards failed in Minnesota should not automatically qualify this as a doomed hire.
If you're going to discount Richards, do it because Columbus has problems that extend beyond the NHL bench. Is Howson really the guy to lead this franchise forward? Can he find a way to keep Rick Nash as the cornerstone, centerpiece player around the team's latest attempt to build a winner?
One has to assume we'll find out soon, and Richards' future in Columbus may ultimately be tied to that of his boss.
For more on the Blue Jackets, check in with The Cannon.