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The Wild's Andrew Brunette, left, and Dallas' Stephane Robidas (3) watched as Stars goalie Kari Lehtonen deflected a shot.

Ann Heisenfelt, Associated Press

SEASON FINALE WILD 5, DALLAS 3

Richards' future in question, but coach still seeks answers

  • Article by: MICHAEL RUSSO
  • Star Tribune
  • April 10, 2011 - 11:56 PM

The Wild's season is over, and Todd Richards stepped to the lectern after Sunday's 5-3 victory over the Dallas Stars uncertain whether his career as the Wild coach is over, too.

Before the NHL's regular season even officially ended with the Wild propelling the Chicago Blackhawks into the postseason and destroying Dallas' season in the process, two teams already had fired their coaches.

But Richards isn't agonizing over whether he'll make the hat trick.

The embattled second-year coach said he has "peace of mind" and can put his "head on the pillow at night."

"Without question, you look back, 'Would you do some things different?' Yeah, absolutely," Richards said. "But for the most part, there's not too many things I could change."

Still, if you believe Chuck Fletcher, and there's no reason why we shouldn't because the Wild general manager's nature is to meticulously examine everything before making long-term decisions, there will be no imminent verdict regarding Richards' future.

So unlike Ottawa's Cory Clouston, Richards survived the immediate hours after the Wild's season finale. And unlike Florida's Peter DeBoer, it would be surprising if Richards didn't survive the day -- and maybe days -- after the Wild's season finale.

That would mean Richards conceivably could be involved in exit meetings with players even if he's not destined to return.

Richards talked about the future after Sunday's game as if he expects to be part of it, saying it would be "foolish and silly" to not look back and "figure out what went wrong and why it went wrong."

"There was growth in players, growth in chemistry, culture, things that we want to create here and build upon," Richards said. "But ... the finish leaves you with that really empty feeling."

Fletcher won't discuss Richards' future. But he knows Richards kept the Wild competitive until early March.

"On March 8, we beat Colorado. That left us 10 games over .500 at the 67-game mark, we were on pace for 95 points and we were smack in the middle of the playoff race," Fletcher said. "Things obviously unraveled very quickly. But the majority of the season, we were a hard-working, competitive team. Whatever reason, the last three weeks, everything's fallen apart on us. Now it's my job to find out why."

Richards, who has one year left on his contract, is not the only member of the coaching staff in limbo.

Assistants Dave Barr and Darby Hendrickson, goalie coach Bob Mason, video coach PJ Deluca and strength coach Chris Pietrzak-Wegner all have expiring contracts.

Rick Wilson, credited for doing wonders with the Wild's defensive play this season, is the only assistant with a year left on his deal because the Wild picked up part of the contract he had left with Tampa Bay and Dallas.

A few weeks ago, Richards' job appeared to be in unquestionable peril. The Wild lost eight games in a row at the worst possible time and was getting embarrassed nightly at home.

But one thing the Wild appears to be contemplating: The team will be younger next season. Casey Wellman, Cody Almond, Colton Gillies, and if it can sign him, Mikko Lehtonen are a few of the forwards expected to vie for spots. Defenseman Marco Scandella will have a chance to make the team with youngsters Jared Spurgeon and Clayton Stoner.

There could be growing pains, so does it make sense to pay Richards not to coach and burn the first year of a more expensive veteran coach in such a transition?

On the flip side, Richards has made mistakes.

Matching lines still is not something he's big on, even at home, where it's easier. Despite two consecutive missed postseasons, Richards usually kept his top line intact, only trying playmaker Pierre-Marc Bouchard there the final two games. His relationship with Martin Havlat still is rocky.

And during the losing streak, Richards was out of answers and wore dejection on his face.

There are also off-ice factors that go beyond whether Richards is a qualified coach.

The Wild is at the $59.4 million salary-cap ceiling, meaning it's spending to the max to not make the playoffs. The fan base has voiced frustration by jeering and not buying tickets.

And with little cap flexibility this offseason, the only guarantee of change would be replacing Richards or parts of the coaching staff.

If Sunday was it for Richards, he caught a glimpse of the type of emotional, up-tempo, hard-working team he's long wanted to coach. He witnessed the arena as loud as ever.

"It leaves you with a little bitter taste of winning a game like this because it sure would be great to play 15 or 20 more like that," Richards said. "It's disappointing."

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