"This is about the players and them saying and doing the right things. What game number are we at right now? Sixty? Game 60 has little to do with coaches. We're just kind of stepping and getting out of the way and letting these guys play."
-- Todd Richards, Feb. 22, after the Wild rose to fifth in the West
Over the past month, over this seven-game winless streak, after the 8-1 calamity of a loss on home ice to Montreal, that statement by Wild coach Todd Richards reverberates.
After "letting these guys play," the Wild is 3-9-2, has fallen six spots in the standings (to 11th in the Western Conference) and will miss the playoffs for the third consecutive year. Richards has presided over the past two seasons, and this very well may be his last.
There are a lot of factors for the team's demise. For one, many of Richards' players have stopped scoring and are defending erratically.
But for 2 1/2 months, Richards was masterful. Yes, the Wild got great goaltending and was defending impressively, thus masking its offensive deficiencies. But Richards also seemed to push all the right buttons.
That is no longer true. In two weeks, owner Craig Leipold and General Manager Chuck Fletcher will judge the end result.
Perhaps, if the Wild had missed the playoffs by a point or two after fighting to the bitter end, the team could convince its fan base that the seven losses in 11 games (4-5-2) during Mikko Koivu's injury did the Wild in.
But the wheels have come off. The Wild has suffered ugly home losses all season (not only on this homestand), making it difficult to spin anything to fans other than change.
Fletcher's job is safe. He inherited bad contracts and a barren farm system when he was hired two years ago; he will be allowed to execute a plan.
But Richards likely won't be afforded that luxury.
"I knew this coming in when I took the job," Richards said. "Are there some things that I would change? Maybe. That's all in hindsight. For the most part, I'm comfortable and happy with the job I've done. It's not the results I want, by any means. It's not the way I want the team playing, by any means.
"But the opinions, the [hot seat], it goes with the job."
A disappointed Richards has tossed and turned a lot lately. "You replay things in your head -- games and situations and where did it start to take its downward fall," Richards said."
In front of the cameras and on the ice in practice, Richards hasn't flipped his lid.
Most coaches would. After Sunday's seven-goal loss to the Canadiens, Richards talked about the Wild's "execution" being horrible but reiterated his trust in the group.
In contrast, Atlanta coach Craig Ramsay, after an 8-2 loss to the Islanders this week, said the Thrashers "collapsed" and "panicked" and showed a "complete unwillingness to try to block a shot." Heck, Nashville coach Barry Trotz shredded his playoff-bound team after a fifth straight win Thursday.
"You don't hear me behind closed doors, so it's a little bit different there," Richards said. "But I also think when you're at Game 65 or 60, there's certain things that a coach can do, but the players have all the power.
"They're sick of listening to me talk, and I've yelled at them enough. They know what's expected. It comes down to playing for each other and holding each other accountable."
The big reason Richards' job is in jeopardy goes beyond whether he's a good coach. Leipold and Fletcher are in a pickle.
Leipold has paid close to $60 million in NHL payroll alone, and his team has missed the playoffs two years in a row. He has an unsettled fan base at a time when he's asking those folks to plop down thousands of dollars for next year's season tickets.
And Fletcher doesn't have a lot of salary-cap room to play with. The Wild already has committed close to $50 million in player salaries next season.
Fletcher can't promise that prospects such as Mikael Granlund, Johan Larsson or Casey Wellman will be ready to make an impact next season. And even though he might try to trade Brent Burns for an impact forward and deal others in an attempt to free cap space, Fletcher can't guarantee anything will happen.
The only way the Wild can convince fans that next season won't be more of the same is to fire Richards.
Unfair? Maybe, maybe not. But that's the harsh reality of pro sports.
Michael Russo • firstname.lastname@example.org