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With new coach, Wild players' looser style may come closer to their name

Todd Richards
Bruce Kluckhohn/Wild
Minnesota-bred Todd Richards, the Wild's new coach, met the Twin Cities media today.

Six mounted televisions framed the top of the raised stage in the Xcel Energy Center lobby, and the end screens showed the press conference happening below.

Minnesota Wild defenseman Brent Burns watched much of new Wild coach Todd Richards' introduction to the Twin Cities media today on the right-side monitor, rather than looking at Richards directly. Surprisingly, that's a good sign. For months, Burns couldn't watch television without dizziness because of a concussion.

And when the formal part ended, after Richards and new general manager Chuck Fletcher talked enthusiastically about an up-tempo style with defenseman jumping into the fray, Burns — also recovering from right shoulder surgery — reacted coolly to the notion that the Wild will play more closely to their nickname than they did under former Coach Jacques Lemaire.

"You can't be irresponsible," he said. "It's not going to be five guys just playing pond hockey and running around…Every player wants to score goals and stuff, but I don't think it's going to be crazy."

It can't be. Lemaire crafted a conservative system based on the team's strengths — defense, goaltending, and special teams — and its disturbing lack of offense, especially those reams of games Marian Gaborik missed with injuries. Hiring Richards, a Crystal native and former University of Minnesota defenseman who has never been an NHL head coach, plays well with the provincial crowd, but it won't change the frontier much unless Fletcher finds him grittier scorers and grinders. 

That's why the next few months, with the amateur draft June 26 and 27 and the unrestricted free agency period beginning July 1, mean more to the Wild's immediate future than today's announcement. Who they hired was less important than who Fletcher can acquire, as long as the coach wasn't a boozehound or a cementhead.

By most accounts, Fletcher chose an up-and-coming coach whose name, according to owner Craig Leipold, came up with "eight or nine" of the 12 candidates he interviewed for the general manager's job.

In seven seasons as a professional head or assistant coach and 13 as a player, Richards, 42, made the playoffs every year. He's good, he's smart, people like him. Great. Let's see what happens the first time one of the brats he inherits whines about practice, or demeans his meager NHL playing experience. (Richards played 19 games, including playoffs, in two seasons with a Hartford Whalers team that had more grit than talent.)

As a coach, it's a lot easier to loosen the reins than tighten them. How much freedom Richards will allow his players once he gets to know them remains to be seen, which may be another reason for Burns' hesitance.

Lemaire was strict, but he wasn't an idiot. The Wild played that style for a reason:  Bad offensive teams can win low-scoring games, but have no chance in wide-open ice.  Would you rather win 2-1 or lose 6-2? Lemaire opted for the former, as brutal to watch as it was. You need aggressive players for an aggressive identity, and the Wild did not have enough.

As for scoring, snipers in hockey are like starting pitchers in baseball and wide receivers in football: You had better draft your own, because you'll bust your budget signing them as free agents. Fletcher anticipates the salary cap remaining stationary this year and dropping slightly next, which limits his ability to bring in help even if Gaborik bolts in free agency as expected.

Though Richards think he can implement his system immediately — almost every team forechecks the same, he said, so the style should be familiar to most players — it's foolish to expect significant improvement right away. They'll need at least two strong drafts to replenish their farm system, probably forcing them to take more U.S. college players than ever before.

It will be interesting to see if Fletcher retains player personnel director/assistant GM Tom Thompson, whose latest drafts lacked the quality of his first four. Fletcher already fired the other assistant GM, Tom Lynn, an attorney who negotiated contracts.

The Wild may regress before they improve. The changes, and Leipold's vocal commitment to building a Stanley Cup champion, bought the Wild time. Whether this is right path remains to be seen. A healthy Burns offers Richards an important building block, and Burns — a character who counts an 8-foot, yellow Burnese python among his 40 pet snakes — seemed willing to give his new coach a chance.

"I just met him," Burns said. "He said he doesn't think he can come to my house because of the snakes. 
 
"I heard he's had success everywhere. Somebody said he's made the playoffs every year that he's been involved with a team. It's exciting. Every player wants to in the playoffs and win the [Stanley] Cup, especially after just seeing it. We'll learn more about him, and he'll learn more about us."

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