Fire Richards, and Fire Him Now

Why do I always look like I have gas?
OK, I'll be the first to admit I'm something of a Chuck Fletcher apologist––I loved the Latendresse trade and signing, I've liked POS for the short time since we got him for nothing, I was glad to see Mikko extended, I'm very happy with 2010's draft class (especially Granlund and Zucker), and the Havlat deal has looked pretty brilliant as of late. In my book he's succeeded on a lot of tangible fronts that this organization severely struggled with under He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named. For that, he's earned some time and some leeway in my book. But he's been preaching patience with Richards, and a need for more responsibility from players. And while there's certainly room for players to step up, there are a lot of fundamental problems with the way the team's playing that can only be solved from the top down, so I have to disagree with him on this one. Richards has to go, and here's why:

The top line hasn't changed since
this guy left––and it desperately
needs to compensate for his absence.
For starters, he's abysmal at creating lines. The Brunette-Koivu-Mittens line has, frankly, been a failure this season. Mittens is a solid NHL player, especially on the PK, but he plays a third-line game and has certainly earned his nickname "Antti Missedthenettigan."Bruno is just too slow to keep up with other teams' first lines and is dragging down a franchise player at this point. He's constantly behind the play and that's not helping anyone. I'll agree with Fletch that it would be nice to see Mikko step up his game––he's looked a bit lost the past month––but he doesn't pick his own lines; that's the coach's job, and he's failing. (Or if he does pick his own lines, then Richards is doing even worse than I thought!) Let's see Mikko play with Havlat, who has been tearing it up lately, and maybe we'd have a legitimate scoring threat line for the first time since a certain Slovak left us. Throw in Bouchard, who looks like he hasn't missed a beat and who has shown tremendous chemistry with both of those players, and we might even start winning some games! Even if that's not the line Richards wants––maybe he wants Havlat and Koivu on separate lines to spread the tough matchups––there are still players vastly more deserving of that first line spot. To wit, Patrick O'Sullivan. In my book he's looked fantastic in his short tenure here. He brings speed and a decent shot (and he can even score in the shootout... hallelujah!) and has appeared to be playing with intention. Why, then, was he a healthy scratch in the Wild's 13th straight loss at American Airlines Center? Plodding turnover machines like Nystrom and Madden don't bring the sort of upside to the lineup that anyone can see the team is lacking.

One of the reasons POS has fairly quickly endeared himself to the legions of the State of Hockey is his presence on the ice. Most of the team's play just has the wrong atmosphere out there. It's lazy, there's absolutely nothing holding the team up in the second period, and frankly, they often look like they just don't know where they're going. Sometimes this is a problem player, but when it's this pervasive throughout lines or the entire roster––extending to both veterans and newbies, and even a fierce competitor like Koivu––it suggests a coaching difficulty. And it's not like his decisions once the puck has dropped are any better than what's coming out of the locker room: Richards' situational decisions are equally disappointing––sending out ineffective grinders when the team needs momentum most (like right after an opposing goal), bringing the goalie to the bench for the extra skater at the wrong time and killing any chance of a late tie, failing to use timeouts when the momentum starts tilting the ice the wrong way, even leaving Backstrom in for an obscene 7 goals against in Denver this past week.

Back during the Wild's horrific eight-game road loss streak in '09, people were talking about the need to adjust to a new system, but to be blunt, I think the players look lost because Richards doesn't really have a system. They keep repeating these buzzwords like "up-tempo" and "offensive" but don't have any consistent play to support this. Nothing they are doing on the ice looks in any way like they're even trying to generate chances, or know how to. Richards was an offensive defenseman in his college days, but carrying that distinction can be a trap to ignoring defensive responsibilities. When Richards has encouraged DFDs like Schultz to jump into plays deep in the offensive zone, he seems to have completely ignored the defenseman's primary purpose: preventing pucks from getting to the goalie. Statistically speaking, all Richards accomplished in the transition from '08-'09 to '09-'10 was allowing vastly more goals against; the Wild scored exactly the same number of goals in each of those two years, and without any particularly significant personnel turnover to blame for it (remember that Gaborik barely played in '08-'09 due to that nagging crotch of his). It's possible that the "system" he preaches––defensemen playing like fourth and fifth forwards, letting the players manage themselves and create their own plays, and placing all the blame on them and their effort––worked in the AHL. But it doesn't work in general, and it certainly doesn't work with the Wild roster's skillsets. 

Remember that string of games that everyone felt the Wild "shouldn't have won" even though they somehow pulled one out? Like that OT win in Detroit? Yeah, games like Gaborik's return and that awful game against the Flyers are what we all felt coming in our gut the whole time, because even the wins, while enjoyable, aren't convincing. It's not about Richards' record; he simply does not coach a responsible, sustainable style of hockey, and it's obvious from watching the team in 80% of the games they play. There are plenty of coaching options, both internally and externally, who would do much better. Michel Therrien is even already on payroll! Fletcher, I understand your desire to see players step up, but a lot of the problems the team is having just can't be solved by "trying harder" on the level of individual effort. The Wild are scraping the bottom of the barrel of the tough Western Conference. If the team is to make the stated goal of participating in playoff hockey, then this change needs to happen before the hole gets any deeper.


PS: Every time you use a defenseman in the shootout before Marty Havlat, an angel loses its wings.

2 comments:

  1. nice article. I'm not as high on POS as you are--voros did much more in the same amount of time as POS and look where he is. anyone who is mixing the words "fantastic" in the same sentence as POS needs to step back and look at the kid's history and temper their expectations.

    You also do a disservice by bashing Nystrom and Madden who were actually playing better than any of our first line players for too much of the season. I can take the occasional late hit or crosschecking penalty plus the turnovers from our plugs vs. even more penalties (of the "lazier" variety) plus the same turnovers from our captain and $7 million dollar man. Are you afraid to critique him? Totally agree that line has to change, but the main reason they've been so ineffective this year is because of Koivu's lack of...je ne sais quoi. He hasn't played with that indomitable will we all came to count on, and what that line needed to retain the puck in the zone long enough to set up. The other two haven't got much worse than last year, if at all--it's just been the sad truth that Koivu hasn't been carrying the line this year as he was in the past. Is it fair to expect that of him? With what we're paying him, yes. But it isn't happening, so you're correct: time to change it up. We can all see that--it's hard to say why Richards won't do it. Maybe Mikko is against the idea?

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  2. This team is better than the team a year ago. This is at least a 3-4 line into the 3rd period. Last year it was 2-3. Yet, the team is regressing, not progressing. Everything has been tried on the ice, now its time to go behind the bench. There, its just not working. TR & troops have to go.

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