Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Todd Richards: Fall Guy for ... Doug Risebrough?

In case you were under a rock or something, you may not have heard that second-year Wild head coach Todd Richards got fired Monday.

It wasn't a move totally unexpected. The team's March free-fall virtually locked management into this move, as you can't fire all the players.

Hell, with all these untradeable contracts, you can't trade most of the players, much less fire them.

This wasn't about Richards being incompetent. This wasn't about Richards not doing the best he could with the talent he was given. It also isn't about anything general manager Chuck Fletcher really did wrong. In all honesty, Fletcher has done a fairly good job over his two years at the helm, ditching as many bad contracts as humanly possible while also using college free agents to help re-stock the farm system a bit as the effort to compile more draft picks continues.

The bottom line is that Richards is taking the fall for the misdeeds of previous management.

It was Doug Risebrough who made the mistakes Richards paid for Monday. It was Risebrough whose mismanagement of the roster and farm system led the Wild to take the franchise in a different direction when Craig Leipold bought the team.

In short, Risebrough cost Richards his job, simply by putting the organization in a near-impossible position for Fletcher.

Risebrough routinely let free agents go without compensation, even though he knew he wasn't going to sign them. He traded draft picks like they were jellybeans, making it virtually impossible to bring in the kind of players who could eventually replace the free agents he was losing. He used first-round picks on guys like Colton Gillies and James Sheppard, players who might be capable at the NHL level but who were so rushed out of the gates that it hurt their development.

(Only now does Gillies really look NHL-ready, which would be fine if he hadn't been in the NHL two years ago. Sheppard might get thrown into the AHL next year when he's healthy again, a move that follows two full -- and trbl -- seasons in the NHL.)

The Wild now have a decently-stocked farm system, thanks to moves by Fletcher that gained them some prime college free agents like Nate Prosser and extra draft picks for players like Matt Hackett. He still has work to do at the NHL level, though, to fix a team that spent to the salary cap without anything remotely resembling that kind of production.

Does that sound like a team ready to compete at a high level in the NHL?

No. And it's unfortunate that Richards was placed in a position to do something that would have been difficult -- if not impossible -- to pull off.

Was Richards perfect? No. Does this mean Fletcher was wrong to fire him? No.

Instead, the point here is that Risebrough's awful work over his last few years as general manager is what put the Wild in such a difficult spot. While Fletcher is stuck trying to rebuild the NHL and minor-league rosters at the same time, Richards was coaching square pegs for his round-hole system.

From a coaching standpoint, there was more bending that the head coach could have done to help bring things along more smoothly. He was not good at matching lines to put pressure on opponents. However, it probably didn't matter much what he did. When players started dropping like flies, the Wild had nowhere to turn for replacements.

Now, Fletcher has to find a replacement. Unless he wants to hire a veteran coach like Ken Hitchcock or Andy Murray, or even if he does, he's probably taking a similar chance. If that happens, there's a good chance Craig Leipold will be the one talking in two years about how the person he just fired wasn't the right fit.

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