Jackets coached to unexpected heights
When the NHL lockout ended, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who believed the Columbus Blue Jackets would be anything but a Puck Daddy punch line.
“It bothered me when people had us finishing 30th… and (saying) we weren’t going to do anything. It bothered me that we weren’t getting the recognition as far as national TV games,” said Jackets head coach Todd Richards, who was standing at the helm of the CBJ Titanic watching the iceberg close in. “And I understand that, I know how it works—you have to win first. But for me, that’s been the motivation—to try and prove people wrong.”
And boy have they. A record-setting March (10-2-4) put the formerly defunct Blue Jackets in the heat of a playoff push—a sight fans haven’t beheld since 2009, when the team clinched their first playoff berth before being swept in four games in the first round by the Detroit Red Wings. Somehow, some way, the ship changed course.
One can pontificate on the many reasons why the Blue Jackets are now sailing in smoother waters—a change in management, goaltending, defense, a stellar penalty kill—but, at the end of the day: “The speed of the ship is the speed of the captain,” said defenseman Jack Johnson. “And it starts with the coaches.”
O Captain, My Captain—Calming rough waters
“You need the proper culture. You need the proper structure. And I think that’s been provided by the coaching staff,” said Blue Jackets president of hockey operations John Davidson. “I think the thing that’s stuck out more than anything else is, for the first half of the season or so, we were losing but playing pretty well and frustration could have set in and (the team) could have just said “that’s enough, let’s just get through the rest of the season” type of thing. But these coaches—that never happened.”
And it could have, very easily, for Richards, said Davidson of a man well-known for living the mantra “Stay Calm and Carry On.”
“He was somewhat frustrated, because coaches are born to win; that’s what they do. And it’s win today; not yesterday or tomorrow, but today,” said Davidson. “But (Richards) kept his sense of coaching, good coaching, and continued to push without that frustration level overriding anything.”
Richards, hired as head coach May 14, 2012, after joining the club as an assistant coach on June 20, 2011 and taking over as interim head coach Jan. 9, 2012, readily admits that the season-starting 5-12 record disheartened him.
“Coaching was hard. It was really hard and I don’t ever remember it being that hard,” said Richards, who compiled a 77-71-16 record as the Minnesota Wild head coach from 2009-11. “We had to get through some things as a team.”
Richards said in hindsight the issue was clear—the team just hadn’t quite gelled yet.
“I think that was really it. I think it was just everyone coming together and it took a little time,” said Richards, who helped the San Jose Sharks capture the Presidents’ Trophy with an NHL-best 53-18-11 record in 2008-09 as an assistant coach. “I think once we started to play and play well, to me, a standard was set. An expectation was set. And it’s what I expect now out of the players.”
Having a leader that braved the storm and brought the team through to the other side is something Johnson said has been an invaluable asset to the room.
“To see him calm and under control—he’s a calming presence. Whether we’re up by five or down by five, he’s always even-keeled,” said Johnson. “He always made things positive and believed we were a good hockey team and that trickles down to the players.”
Not that it was ever hard for Richards, a man who chooses to see the best in everyone—including a downtrodden hockey team.
“Maybe it’s just a belief in people that you can accomplish things if you set your mind to it,” said Richards. “I think we’ve proven to ourselves, and to other teams and other people in the hockey world and fans in general that it doesn’t really matter, personnel-wise, superstars or no superstars, if you go out and work you’re giving yourself a chance every night.”
“I think that’s what the fans here want—they want an honest effort every night. They’re appreciative of that,” said Richards. “It’s not always about the wins and the losses—it’s about the process of doing things right. And when you do things right over and over, the results usually take care of themselves.”
That ability to stay the course is something the coaching staff appreciates in Richards as well.
“He keeps the high’s low and the low’s high,” said assistant coach Keith Acton, who joined the club last summer and has spent more than 30 years in the NHL as a player and assistant coach, including with the Toronto Maple Leafs and time with the New York Rangers. “He has a lot of coaching experience. He’s very thorough. He’s very knowledgeable. That gives him instant credibility with the group and certainly he’s consistent with them and they really listen to him.”
Enough so to vault the club into a 41-point tie in the Western Conference with the Dallas Stars, just three points out of the coveted No. 8 playoff spot, currently held by the Detroit Red Wings.
“I think they’ve really dedicated and committed themselves to doing what Todd has asked them to do. That’s where it starts and they’ve been doing it. They’ve been playing their hearts out,” said Acton. “They’ve been playing with a certain desire and dedication that’s been equal to and beyond their opponents.”
Using positive energy to get what he needs out of players is what everyone in the organization will say about Richards. His calmness is his trademark.
“If I’m out of control, I think your team gets out of control. Your team takes on the persona of your coach,” said Richards. “I certainly want us to play with emotion and intensity, and I think I have those things; it’s that you have to use your head more than your heart.”
But the thinking man also enjoys his fun—work hard, play hard for this coach.
“My Mom and Dad give me a hard time because they never see me smile on the bench,” said Richards—with a smile, of course. “I like to have fun, and back in the coaches office we have our laughs, we have a good time. But it’s different when you get in front of the players or you’re on the bench because it’s about work and I think you need to be an example of what you want your team to be.”
But make no mistake, when something needs to be said—Richards has no problem saying it.
“He lets us know when we’re not doing well, for sure,” laughed Johnson.
“He has the coaching experience and the fortitude to not let something that could become a problem, become a problem,” said Davidson. “He takes care of it internally, quietly, and that’s a good thing to be able to do.”
Jack Adams contender?
Richards’s efforts to right the ship certainly resemble the description of the annual NHL Jack Adams award, handed out by the National Hockey League Broadcasters' Association to “the NHL coach adjudged to have contributed the most to his team's success,” according to the NHL website. The award has also been given for reasons including a club’s turn around, adversities overcome, and domination over the season.
A few of the coaches being talked about for 2013’s honors include the Ottawa Senators Paul MacLean, Chicago Blackhawk’s Joel Quenneville and the Anaheim Ducks Bruce Boudreau.
But what about Todd Richards? Granted, there are many factors that have contributed to the team’s success this year, and they are all a good argument against Richard’s single nomination when goaltending, management and defense are all part of the team’s success, but the fact remains, even with those pieces in place, no one expected the Blue Jackets to be playoff contenders.
Richards coached them there.
And let’s not forget that before there ever was a Davidson or a Sergai Bobrovosky or a veteran coaching staff or a solid defense, Richards led the Blue Jackets to an 18-21-2 record, including a 16-14-1 mark over the final 31 games of the 2011-12 tumultuous season with wins in seven of the last 11 outings at a time when the club could have just called it a day and hit the links.
Shouldn’t a coach like that at least be a part of the Jack Adams award conversation?
“He’s done as good a job coaching as anybody else has, there’s no question about that. Yes, they can look at goaltending, it’s been good, but so has our defensive play. And it’s not just the defensemen, it’s our structure. We know what our strengths are; we know what our weaknesses are; we have to be good defensively to stay in games and he’s coached that way. He’s coached up. He’s coached this team up,” said Davidson. “And I have a lot of respect for what this staff has been able to do.”
Is Davidson surprised that, given Richard’s efforts, his name isn’t in the Jack Adams mix?
“No, because we’re Columbus,” said Davidson. “That’s something that’s made me feel good about this run—people are starting to talk about Columbus. This is a good city, this is a hockey market, this is a good hockey club that has a chance to continue to grow into a much better hockey club and with that all being said, (Columbus) is still an afterthought at times and that’s up to us to change that by winning games and playing well by doing things the proper way.”
Johnson echoed Davidson’s thoughts: “(Richards) definitely deserves more credit than he’s gotten; there’s no question.”
But for Richards, the thought is a far-fetched notion—the award, he said, is given to a single person. And the coaching aspect has been a team effort.
“So many other people have done so many good things here. From the players to management to staff to the assistant coaches. That’s the way I look at it,” said Richards. “We got contributions from everyone in that room.”
Richards is quick to point out, anytime, anywhere, that he and his team wouldn’t be where they are today without the hard work of the coaching staff. Associate Coach Craig Hartsburg, Acton, Assistant Coach Dan Hinote, Goaltending Coach Ian Clark and Video Assistant Coach Dan Singleton, to be exact.
Acton and Hartsburg bring veteran coaching experience and depth to offensive and defensive coaching, respectively, said Richards.
Hartsburg joined the club last summer after completing a season as associate coach with the Calgary Flames. He has 20+ years of coaching experience, including stints as head coach of the Chicago Blackhawks from 1995-98, Anaheim Ducks from 1998-2001 and Ottawa Senators in 2008-09. He led his clubs to the Stanley Cup Playoffs in three of his five full seasons as a head coach.
“One of my objectives coming in was making sure I had guys that had some experience. It was a great decision on my part; that’s about the only credit I can take is, I went the right way as far as hiring the guys—both Keith and Craig have a tremendous amount of experience,” said Richards, adding that staff communication has been key. “They’ve been very open about their opinions and what they think, which is what you need. They brought up some points and some things that maybe I hadn’t thought of or maybe I hadn’t been clear enough in my thoughts and they opened up my thoughts or more discussion in the room.”
Hinote, who’s been with the club since July 1, 2010, following a 13-year playing career that included stints with the Colorado Avalanche, where he won a Stanley Cup championship, and the St. Louis Blues, has brought a significant amount of energy to the coaching staff, said Richards, adding that a young guy like that “brings a passion to coaching and youthful energy in the coaching environment, because we’re all in our 50s or our late 40s.”
“Plus, it’s good to bounce things off him because he was just a former player and you still have somewhat of that mentality, knowing what’s going on, maybe how (players) feel.”
Davidson agreed, adding that Hinote’s reputation of how he worked as a player gets the team’s attention.
“When he talks to players about certain things, you have to trust him because he did play the game the right way,” said Davidson.
Not to mention, Hinote, along with Acton, has been instrumental in the club’s stellar penalty kill, which sits 7th in the league at 84.4 percent.
“When we started this season, we all sat down as a group and decided this is what we want to do, this is what we want to implement, these are our key factors, we have to stress this on this penalty kill,” said Richards. “But once we got into the season, without question, it’s been Keith Acton’s and Dan Hinote’s ball to run with. They’ve done a great job preparing our guys. Keith runs the meetings and Danny does a lot of the video; he works closely with Keith.”
Another standout for this club—the goaltending. Bobrovosky is a leading Vezina Trophy candidate with his .930 save percentage and 2.05 GAA stats. Bobrovosky’s work ethic and ability to run his precinct efficiently and consistently have proven vital to the Jacket’s success.
“Ian Clark does a good job with the goalies, without question,” said Davidson of Clark’s work with Bobrovosky and newly acquired Michael Leighton. “(Clark) works hard every day; he’s driven.”
But it’s more than that with Clark, said Richards.
“One thing I find with Ian that’s really valuable is he sees the game well,” said Richards. “Not only from a goalie standpoint, but you can ask him a question about what he sees up top (from the press box), systematically—where are we giving them chances? Both he and (Hinote) have a good feel when they’re up top so its good to ask them questions when they come down in between periods.”
Clark was hired June 6, 2011, after serving as the Vancouver Canucks goaltending coach and consultant from 2002-10. He was also a member of Team Canada's coaching staff at the World Junior Championships from 2003-06, winning silver medals in 2003 and 2004 and capturing gold in 2005 and 2006.
Insight into the team and the organization from all angles has been instrumental for Richards. Particularly from Dan Singleton, who’s been with the club since 2000, after spending the previous six years as the video coordinator for the Michigan State University hockey team.
“Singleton has been here for a long time. He knows this organization,” said Richards. “He’s another guy that offers some good insight because he’s seen a lot of hockey and he’s been through a lot things.”
The combination of coaches, experience levels and insight has given way to a success no one expected—including Davidson.
“It’s been a big year for them,” said Davidson of the coaching staff. “I like the meshing of all these coaches. There’s no egos that get in the way.”
Falcons give team flight
One piece of coaching success that can’t be discounted in the Blue Jackets 2012-13 success, is the work of the minor league Springfield Falcons staff.
“The lifeline of your NHL team is your American League Hockey (AHL) team. Our coaches down there have done a great job,” said Richards. “When you get players up here, especially in a shortened season, you don’t have time to coach them, to develop them. They need to be ready to go. Look at all the young guys we brought up—they’ve all come up and done a very good job for us.”
From Matt Calvert to Cam Atkinson and Dalton Prout to Tim Erixson—the Blue Jackets feeder team has been coached to big league success by head coach Brad Larsen and assistant coaches Nolan Pratt and Jared Bednar.
“All the kids that have come up, have been good,” said Davidson. “They’ve really helped us and gotten us through a lot of difficult times. I give the Springfield coaching staff a great deal of credit. The guys that come up aren’t overwhelmed, they’re ready, they don’t let pressure get to them, they play the game the right way and that’s one reason why we’re in this race.”
The players fight for playoff berth
“As coaches we can ask (players) to do certain things and there’s a certain atmosphere you want to create, which makes it enjoyable to come to the rink and do the job, but the players are the ones that are doing the work,” said Richards of how the team got to this point and how it must move forward.
The Blue Jackets have no wiggle room for losses at this point. Maybe 1 or 2 drops if you find a generous mathematician, but in reality—every single game from here on out is a must-win to keep the club’s dream of a playoff berth alive.
As of Friday morning, Columbus sits 11th in the Western Conference at 41 points, tied with Dallas. Phoenix is in 9th place with 42 points and Detroit holds the No. 8 spot with 44 points. It will take players sticking with the coaching staff’s plans down to the details to make it happen.
“Our goal is to make the playoffs and that’s what our goal was at the start of the year and it hasn’t changed,” said Acton, adding that sticking to the game plan and playing with discipline, sacrifice and an opportunistic attitude is what the club needs to do over the last eight games. And if they do that, well then, “At the end of the night we’ll have a win.”
You can watch the Blue Jackets take on the St. Louis Blues at 7 p.m. tonight in Nationwide Arena. It’s the club’s next to last home game before a 7-game schedule on the road in tough rinks. You can watch those battles on Fox Sports Ohio. The final game, played at home, will be Saturday, April 27, at 7 p.m. against the Nashville Predators.