The Minnesota Wild are back in the market for a new coach.
The Wild fired Todd Richards on Monday after the team missed the playoffs in each of his two seasons and for a third straight season overall. The team's playoff fate, and perhaps that of Richards, was sealed by an eight-game losing streak in March.
General manager Chuck Fletcher picked Richards as a first-time NHL head coach — he had been an assistant in the league for only one year prior — over several more seasoned candidates. Fletcher refused to second-guess his first major decision on the job or blame Richards for the 12th-place finish in the Western Conference.
The Wild finished 39-35-8, 11 points out of the final playoff spot. The 44-year-old Richards went 77-71-16 in his two seasons.
"He's naturally disappointed, as was I, and it wasn't easy," said Fletcher, whose voice quivered and eyes watered three times during a news conference at Xcel Energy Center. "Our relationship goes back a few years, and we've been through a lot of good times and good seasons, and this did not end the way either one of us wanted."
The Wild have made the playoffs three times in their 10-year history: 2003, 2007 and 2008. They've passed the first round once.
They are still one of the most strongly supported teams in the league, but for the first time in their existence did not sell out every game this season. Fletcher said fan frustration with the continued mediocrity didn't fuel the change, however.
"My job is to put a winning hockey team on the ice and build a team that ultimately gets to where we all want to get to," Fletcher said. "When we do that, the season tickets will follow. This was not a reactionary move."
Fletcher said he's been assured by team owner Craig Leipold that he'll be back and insisted the decision to fire Richards was his alone, not a mandate from the boss.
With San Jose's Todd McLellan and Pittsburgh's Dan Bylsma enjoying success, the trend in NHL coaching has been tilting toward fresh and away from experienced. Picked as the second coach in team history after Jacques Lemaire resigned, Richards promised to bring more exciting play, an up-tempo style emphasizing puck possession and a strong forecheck.
He's a native of the Twin Cities area who played for the University of Minnesota, a local connection that always plays well here. The Wild had become a team lacking star power and scoring punch under Lemaire despite his ability to make the most out of what he had.
Most of the time, though, the Wild's attack didn't look any more slick than it did under the defensive-minded disciplinarian Lemaire, and they gave up more goals than they did in years past under the new system.
The Wild were not able to overcome injuries to key players or make up for the lack of depth in the farm system.
"I really do believe in sports that not every coach is the right fit for every team," Fletcher said. "Teams have different personalities. There's different talent levels, and not every coach fits with every team. ... I felt that to get the most out of this group of players — certainly the players that are coming back — we needed a new voice and a new direction. It's as simple as that."
Richards didn't immediately return phone messages left Monday seeking comment. He said after Sunday's win over Dallas that he had no regrets.
"I look back over the season, and we did a lot of good things," he said. "I think we accomplished some things. It probably doesn't feel that way, but that's how I feel. To me there was growth: growth in players, the chemistry, the culture and things we want to build upon here. But still it leaves you with that disappointment of the finish."
Fletcher's list of what went right this season included the return of forward Pierre-Marc Bouchard from a concussion, the improvement of center Kyle Brodziak, the productivity of forward Cal Clutterbuck, the emergence of young defensemen Jared Spurgeon and Clayton Stoner, the work ethic of veterans Andrew Brunette and John Madden and the performance of goalies Niklas Backstrom and Jose Theodore.
Fletcher didn't mention All-Stars Brent Burns or Martin Havlat, two players who may not have meshed with Richards. Captain Mikko Koivu's 17 goals and 45 assists seemed to fall short of what's expected from a player who signed a seven-year, $47.25 million contract extension that kicks in next season.
As players packed up equipment, the mood at the arena on Monday was somber.
"I think the players, all of us here in the dressing room, are responsible for it, so it's not a good day," Havlat said.
The Wild reached as high as fifth place after the All-Star break, but Koivu missed 11 games with a broken finger and they started a slump that they never snapped out of. Minnesota went 2-10-1 from March 10 through April 7 before winning the last two games.
"We feel we were definitely good enough to be there and for whatever reason it didn't happen. We're going to do that much more next season to get there," Clutterbuck said.
Brunette, Madden and Antti Miettinen — three of the top 10 scorers this season — lead the list of unrestricted free agents, and the roster is sure to turn over. With little room under the salary cap, trades could be coming.
Fletcher declined to describe the type of coach he'll seek in a replacement or paint a timetable for the process.
"Todd is a good coach. He battled hard," Fletcher said. "The team had streaks where we were a very good hockey team, and unfortunately we came up short. He was disappointed by that. It wasn't from lack of effort."