With the Wild finishing 12th in the Western Conference, the Wild coach became the fall guy Monday morning.
Ultimately, the Wild collapsed during an eight-game losing streak at the worst possible time.
“I would like to thank Todd for the hard work he provided to the Minnesota Wild organization the last two seasons and wish him the best in the future,” said GM Chuck Fletcher in a statement.
He will be available later this morning. The fate of the rest of the coaching staff was not immediately known, but assistant coach Rick Wilson is the only coach with a year left on his contract.
Richards, 44, had basically been on the hot seat long before training camp, but that subsided when the team settled down in late December and played strong hockey for 2 ˝ months. But the last time the Wild was in the top-8 was after an overtime win in Anaheim on Feb. 25.
The Wild missed the playoffs for the third year in a row, second under Richards. The team, which played in front of non-sellout crowds for the first time in its history, spent close to $60 million in payroll, near the maximum allowed by the NHL salary cap.
Richards, who had one more year left on his contract, was hired in June 2009 to transform the organization. He was the young face with brown hair, a Minnesota native and 21 years younger than the only previous coach in franchise history — Jacques Lemaire. Richards’ task was to end the years of conservative hockey with a fresh, up-tempo attacking system.
Most felt deprogramming eight seasons of Lemaire would not be simple, however, and there were indeed growing pains. In Richards’ first season, the Wild finished 13th in the West, not spending more than a day in the top-eight.
The system may have looked more entertaining last year, but the Wild finished 22nd in the NHL with 214 goals (2.61 goals per game) — the exact totals of 2008-09.
And while the Wild failed to score more goals, it managed to give up more. After yielding the fewest goals in the West in 2008-09, the Wild gave up 42 more goals last season (239).
Sixteen months ago, after watching Dan Bylsma win a 2009 Stanley Cup in Pittsburgh and witnessing the success of coaches like Mike Babcock and Bruce Boudreau, who had little or no NHL coaching experience before their first jobs, Fletcher got swept up by the notion of making the next great non-retread hire.
Richards was considered the front-runner from the moment Fletcher took over as GM in June 2009, replacing Doug Risebrough. Fletcher and Richards ahd together in Wilkes-Barre, the Pittsburgh Penguins’ chief farm team.
But Fletcher put his neck on the line by being a first-year GM hiring a first-year coach with limited credentials. Richards was largely considered the next big thing, but he had spent one year as an NHL assistant with San Jose after only two as head coach with Wilkes-Barre.
By hiring Richards, Fletcher passed over men with vast experience such as Dave Tippett, last season’s Jack Adams Award (Coach of the Year) winner, and Peter Laviolette, who coached Philadelphia to the Stanley Cup Finals last season.
Before the 2009-10 season, Fletcher talked to the Star Tribune about the coaching search.
“I remember waking up in the middle of the night in early June, which I did frequently at that point,” Fletcher said in September 2009. “I remember thinking that the concern might be that I’m leaning toward hiring a guy without NHL experience. But my biggest fear was what happens if I don’t go with my instincts and don’t hire him and two years from now he’s a star coach in the league?
“To me, there was a bigger risk not pursuing Todd than hiring him. Once I broke it down to that level, it really became just a matter of when and not if I was going to hire him.”
Fletcher decided that being a first-year GM, it was essential to hire somebody he knew and trusted. Both as a college player at the University of Minnesota and longtime minor-leaguer, and as a coach, Richards had won everywhere.
In the same interview with the Star Tribune last September, Fletcher said, “Brian Burke told me the most important decision I’ll have to make is the coach. If the head coach is great, our team does well. If the coach isn’t great, we won’t. Then I have a problem. Now I’ve got to make a change. If you make a bad pick or hire a bad scout, you can always work around certain things. But the coach is critical.
“I know Todd. He’s a proven winner, a strong communicator, a technically sound coach and a highly competitive guy. When you add it all up, the only knock you can come up with is his lack of NHL experience. But if you use that as a major criterion in every job search, then who would ever get a job?”
Richards, who hails from Crystal, was a star at Armstrong High School and the University of Minnesota.
As a player, Richards won two WCHA titles with the Gophers, a 1991 Calder Cup with Springfield (AHL title), a 2001 Turner Cup with Orlando (2001) and a 2002 Swiss-B League title with Servette Geneve.
Richards, a second-round pick by the Montreal Canadiens in 1995, was a pure offensive defenseman during a bright high school, college and minor-league career. At the U, where he was captain his senior year, Richards scored 30 goals and had 158 assists in four years, being named to the WCHA Second All-Star Team three consecutive years. In Las Vegas in 1994-95, he was IHL defenseman of the year after a 130-point season.
As an assistant coach in Milwaukee, the Admirals went to the Calder Cup finals twice in his tenure, winning one championship. As head coach in Wilkes-Barre from 2006-08, Richards won 98 games and took the Baby Penguins to the Calder Cup finals in 2008. The Sharks won the President’s Trophy in Richards’ only year as an assistant.